What pronouns would Jo March, the protagonist of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” have preferred?
The obvious answer is that no one would ask that question in the 1860s, but the premise of Jungle Theater’s thorny, deconstructed take on “Little Women” is that if folks back then had known that gender is nonbinary, the imaginative and obstreperous Jo (C. Michael Menge) would have landed somewhere in the middle of the continuum.
This is not your grandmother’s “Little Women” — nor, the show is saying, could it be. If the Jungle’s version of Jane Austen in last year’s “Miss Bennet”was a traditional rendering, its “Little Women” is nearly the exact opposite, pulling the Alcott story apart and reassembling it in the way a Cubist painter might. Kate Hamill’s world-premiere adaptation has the characters speak the words of the 19th century with the inflections of today. In this “Little Women” — performed in Chelsea M. Warren’s dreamlike set, including a turntable that whirls characters back and forth in time — the past is accounted for, but we’re more interested in how the story feels now.
Director Sarah Rasmussen’s production knows we read Alcott differently than they did 150 years ago. So, for instance, when Jo (born Josephine) tries to sell a novel to a publisher, the reaction she gets would send her scrambling to Twitter to post a #MeToo story, if she had access to the internet or a phone or, for that matter, an audience that cared about the humanity of women. When Jo’s sister Meg (a tart, intelligent Christine Weber) unleashes a spectacular rant about the “joys” of motherhood, she’s basically a post-bellum Ali Wong. And when Jo is referred to as “fellow” or muses that she can’t abide it when anyone is stuffed into a role that doesn’t suit them, we wonder if she’s speaking about herself and the gowns that, according to costume designer Rebecca Bernstein, she’s forced to wear over pants.
“There’s no place in this world for me,” wails Jo to her supportive mother, Marmee (Christina Baldwin) and the rest of her family. “You have no idea how awful it is spending years pretending you’re someone you’re not!” Actually, they do have an idea — it’s practically the only thing she talks about — but the bold and committed performance by Menge makes sure we get the idea, too. Raw and full of ache, Menge’s Jo is a powerful person in a world that has no use for that, and Menge makes sure we see what a vulnerable place that puts Jo in.
Like Alcott’s book, the Jungle play lingers over the quotidian details of the clinging-to-the-middle-class lives of the Marches: Will the four, titular sisters find happiness and love? Will delicate Beth survive her brushes with ill health? Will the family’s nominal patriarch return from the Civil War (honoring Mr. March’s shadowy depiction in the book, Hamill gives him no dialogue)? But even the material that is presented exactly as Alcott did gains fresh resonance.
Baldwin’s lingering looks at her daughters, especially Jo, convey that she knows each is a distinct and complicated individual, even if the world is unlikely to care. Marmee and grumpy Aunt March (theatrical treasure Wendy Lehr, who’s hilarious) both stand as evidence that women are strong enough to survive their difficult lot in the mid-1860s and that things might be better in the 1870s and beyond.
In fact, maybe the Marches will have a little something to do with that? In this version, it’s unclear if the sort of life Jo dreams for herself in her wildest moments is even possible. But we’re still reading Alcott’s autobiographical book 150 years after it was published, and Greta Gerwig is currently making a film to star Saoirse Ronan as Jo, so we know it is not just possible but certain when Jo says, “I want to be one of the greats and shake the world and outlive my time.”
She has done that, of course. The Jungle’s provocative “Little Women” sometimes comes off as cold, more about the head than the heart, but it sticks the landing with a gorgeous final image: Jo is at the front of the stage, writing for her life, with the rest of the cast behind her. As the lights dim, they all take a tiny, tentative step toward her. Toward the future.