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Conceived and originally directed and choreographed by Fran Charnas

Directed and choreographed by Thomas W. Jones II

At MetroStage to March 27

In the beginning, Hester Prynne laces the trailing, gold-embroidered tails of that fabled A about her thorax, transforming the artifact of her punishment into something that seems as much like a buckler—or a bustier—as a badge of shame. Clever, that: The Scarlet Letter asks us to stand witness as Hester discovers herself and her unexpected strengths among the depravities and hypocrisies of 17th-century Massachusetts, and that one gesture at the outset telegraphs the Rorschach Theatre’s firm grasp of the novel’s themes.

Would that everything about Jenny McConnell Frederick’s production were as efficiently understated as that opening gambit, but the whole of the play turns out to be an exercise in calculated moodiness that rapidly gets to be a little much. Ultimately, the aura of woo-woo suffusing the show becomes an unnecessary gloss on a story that is, after all, a very human one.

Phyllis Nagy’s script has as much to do with that impression as anything. Too often it strains for lyricism and congeals instead into ponderous, self-conscious poetry, and putting the narration in the mouth of Hester’s 7-year-old bastard, Pearl, gives her a certain weird-sister, wise-child air. But the playing style, with everyone murmuring lines as if Mr. DeMille were dollying in for an extreme close-up, certainly contributes.

There’s a good deal to like, as it happens, starting with Eric Grims’ witty set, with its regimented little town houses looming above the Rev. Dimmesdale’s fortresslike church, atop which Hester stands defiant on her scaffold. Though Matthew Frederick’s wryly expressive sound design contributes to the overdone air of supernatural strangeness—Scott McCormick and Celia Madeoy play the malevolent “healer” Roger Chillingworth and the witchy Mistress Hibbins for every ounce of oddball they can uncover in their lines, and Elizabeth Chomko’s disconcertingly eerie Pearl frequently seems to be auditioning for a part in Dune—his soundscape’s often unexpected noises and musics also have much to do with the flashes of mordant humor that occasionally illuminate the play.

Jason Basinger Linkins’ relaxed Brackett is an unassuming asset, and if James O. Dunn III makes the secret-keeping Dimmesdale seem a bit bland in Act 1, he manages to find a more complicated character later in the evening. More gratifying still is Rahaleh Nassri’s contained Hester, a figure of straight-backed reserve and stupendous resolve; Nassri dignifies Hester’s public penance by the quiet defiance with which she undertakes it, and the unshowy elegance of her performance nearly eclipses the production’s missteps.

“The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not to tread,” Hawthorne wrote of Hester; “Shame, Despair, Solitude!…had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.” Frederick and her Rorschach forces understand what he means, and they bring a similar clarity to Nagy’s ruminations on the dynamic between the adulteress and her Pearl, the great price and the great satisfaction of her transgression. It’s never quite clear, though, why fever-dream should be the way to play their story—or why Rorschach’s staging doesn’t ever really burn.

How, you have to wonder, could an evening showcasing such swingin’ songs as “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” be anything other than rousing? Ask Thomas W. Jones II, who’s staged The All Night Strut! with a cursory kind of flashiness that pales pretty quickly after two or three numbers, once you realize that the evening’s hour-40 is just gonna be more of the same.

There’s plenty of good stuff, even if some of the songs Fran Charnas chose for her 25-year-old revue seem a trifle obvious—for every “Backwater Blues” there’s a “Minnie the Moocher,” a “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” or some other overworked number, and the efforts at making them new can be pretty misguided. (Darryl Jovan’s falsetto showboating is merely a dubious contribution until that last tune, in which it becomes actively grotesque.)

There are disappointments beyond the tackiness, too. Yvette Spears never manages to make good on the early, throaty promise of what sounds like the makings of an immense contralto—and proves an oddly diffuse smoke box of a voice. She sounds like Bessie Smith singing through a trumpet mute; it’s an interesting voice in the tight-harmony ensembles, less so in her solos. Less interesting still—or decreasingly interesting, anyway—is the single self-satisfied move Jones keeps steering Spears’ choreography back to. It’s nice that baby’s got back, but waving it around all the time like that ain’t nothing but showing off.

There’s a good deal of eminently professional musicmaking going on at Metro Stage, it must be acknowledged, not least on the stage-left platform from which William Knowles’ piano trio drives the evening. (Gregory Holloway and Yusef Chisholm are his drummer and bassist, and the three of them are a coolly practiced bunch, indeed.) The less familiar ditties tend to be more rewarding, though one or two classy moments do emerge among the warhorses: Lori Anne Williams slips a fine bit of scatting into a four-part vocal run through “In the Mood,” and Jovan lets his tenor off the leash for a few solid notes of belted harmony with William Hubbard midway through “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”

Matt Rowe’s sound design cheats singers and instrumentalists alike, though, with a curiously flat mix; the piano solo you can hear coming in “Beat Me Daddy” is all but indistinguishable from the general noise once it arrives. Carl Gudenius’ set—a Kandinsky of a jazz club, with a colorfully abstract dance floor and a backdrop of stars and skyscrapers—frames the numbers nicely, and Colin K. Bills lights them stylishly. None of it, though, makes up for the show’s hectoring, vaguely desperate energy. The night starts pretty big and mostly stays there, jiving vigorously along while the audience waits for something like a shape to emerge. None does—and all the razzle-dazzle can’t inspire much more than a shrug.CP