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The Rappaccini Variations: Student Review

Solomon Katz

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The Black Box Theater was filled with laughter and the audience was completely enthralled as the Horace Mann Theater Company’s (HMTC) production of “Rappaccini’s Variation” premiered.

The play began with a simple oral presentation to summarize the plot of “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the story which inspired the play. The presentation was straightforward, but spoken very casually with unrelated pictures playing on a slide-show in the background, putting a smile on the audience’s face, regardless of the tragic story told.

The second scene shifted the mood as actors filled the stage in synchronized movement, speaking rhythmically, reaping the benefits of being thoroughly rehearsed.

The actors spoke directly to the audience, shattering the “fourth wall” (the barrier to the audience) to discuss elements of theater, such as the act of breaking the fourth wall.

The new, foreign dynamic between actor and audience member left the audience uncomfortable, but that feeling was ameliorated by the cheery actors encouraging the crowd to sing along with them, bringing the entire Black Box into the play.

Through drastic changes in attire and style of theater, each scene felt disconnected from the rest, although they all told the same story of Rappaccini’s daughter.

The second act begins by replacing comic relief with a much more dramatic undertone. All of scene four was performed without a word. The background music slowly crescendoed and built suspense as the main actions in the plot were turned into dance movements.

The choice to use subtle movement becomes a theme in the act, used again in the next scene where the biggest physical action taken by an actor was leaning over to whisper in another actor’s ear.

Another variation was a “Noh theater” representation. The actors changed into traditional Japanese clothing and picked up traditional Japanese instruments. Additionally, the scene involved a lot of chanting, which felt elongated, at points tense, and elicited intermittent awkward laughter.

“The Rappaccini  Variations” tries to expose the audience to different styles, and the introduction of Noh theatre was an attempt to bring more variety and explore a non-Western culture.

As stated in the program, theatre teacher Joseph Timko is aware of the concerns surrounding the scene but kept the scene in the play with the hopes that it will serve as a way to “examine and practice elements of a culture possibly not our own.” Similar to breaking the fourth wall, this play pushes the boundaries of what audience members are typically comfortable with. Although it felt overdone, the scene was an important variation to include in the play.

As the different styles of theater roll in one after the other, it becomes apparent that the focus of the play is on how a story is told rather than the content of the story itself.

Only in scene eight was the plot of “Rappaccini’s Daughter” acted out. The dialogue feels Shakespearian and the setting, which involves a balcony scene, parallels the characters Giovanni and Beatrice to the iconic couple Romeo and Juliet. However, Giovanni and Beatrice break out into a fight that shatters the illusion of true love and pulls at the heartstrings of the audience.

Another parallel is then immediately drawn between their argument and our modern-day society, once again breaking the fourth wall. Both Giovanni and Rappaccini have their own opinions about what they want Beatrice to do, but they are motivated by their own agendas rather than her well being, emulating a patriarchal society that leaves women like Beatrice feeling powerless.

Giovanni wants to vaccinate Beatrice, but Rappaccini detests this idea because he does not believe her condition is an affliction. The audience empathizes with the clearly fearful Beatrice, who struggles to decide what to do with the lethal condition inherited from her father. The audience is then forced to reflect on their own fear of diseases and also the hesitation parents feel to vaccinate their children.

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Horace Mann's Weekly Newspaper Since 1903
The Rappaccini Variations: Student Review