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Brontë Sister House Party
by Courtney Bailey
Directed by Keating
SATE Ensemble Theatre
August 17, 2022

Maggie Conroy, Cassidy Flynn, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

I love SATE. I say that every time I write a review of one of their productions, it seems. I say it so much, I’m afraid I’m going to sound like a shill, or insincere. But it’s true, and absolutely sincere. I love this theatre company, because they embody what is truly exciting about theatre, time and time again. From production to production, SATE seems to strike just the right notes, whether the play is comedy or drama, new play or classic. Their latest, local playwright Courtney Bailey’s Brontë Sister House Party, is another example of SATE’s remarkable legacy of excellence.  This production, with its clever production and first-rate cast, is at once hilarious, poignant, thoughtful, challenging, educational, historical, and modern. 

This play is a a bit of history, a bit of fantasy, a bit of philosophy, and a lot of party. Hosted by the famed literary sisters of the title, Charlotte (Maggie Conroy), Emily (Rachel Tibbetts), and Anne Brontë (Cassidy Flynn), this party is an existential exercise as well as an interactive experience with a moderate degree of audience participation. The sisters, after their lives on earth, have apparently been cursed by the unseen but much talked-about “Lavender Witch of Gondal” to exist in a “purgatorial time loop” for seemingly endless nights, hosting a new house party each night until they are finally able to reach the elusive and mysterious “Point of Celebratory Reverence”. Through the course of the evening, they lament their apparent lack of ability to throw parties, as well as recounting their lives and their relationships with their work; their brother Branwell (Joel Moses), who doesn’t know about their novels; and even fictional characters from their novels, such as Jane Eyre‘s Helen Burns (Vicky Chen) and Cathy (Bess Moynihan) from Wuthering Heights. Singer Kate Bush (LaWanda Jackson), who sang a song about Wuthering Heights, also figures into the story, as does a personified version of Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant (Zeck Schultz), who serves as the DJ for the party. 

It’s a house party, and the atmosphere is remarkably realistic, as the evening goes through its degrees of anticipation, drinking, dancing, celebratory music, followed by a series of soul-bearing stories, revelations, and cathartic bonding. It’s an exploration of the sisters’ relationships to one another, as well as to their art and the times they lived in, and particularly to men, including their troubled brother. The entire look and tone of the production is set with just the right touches, as Bess Moynihan’s stunningly detailed set and lightening portray a much lived-in 19th Century house and the changing moods as the party progresses, The soundtrack of well-chosen songs suit the mood especially well, including some new music by playwright Bailey. The characters are outfitted with impeccable detail by Liz Henning, and Schultz’s sound design also adds much to the mood of the show. 

The scene is ideally set, which makes for a good party, but the most important part of any party is the people, and the hosts and guests are all especially well-cast. As the sisters, Conroy, Tibbetts, and Flynn all get their moments to shine, from silly fun near the beginning, provided most often by Flynn as the “nice sister”, Anne, to snarkiness from the guarded Emily, to seemingly misplaced hope from Charlotte, who still expects the professor she’s obsessed with to turn up, despite having missed thousands of parties already. The chemistry and interplay between these three provides much of the energy and emotion of the show, and there’s never a dull moment here. There are also excellent turns from Moses as the needy Branwell, Moynihan as the fiery, persistent Cathy, Chen as the disgruntled Helen, who gets a fun musical moment, and Jackson in an entertaining and well-sung turn as Kate Bush, even though Jackson doesn’t sing in the style of Bush.  There are a lot of intense moments here, as well as some fun surprises in terms of storytelling and staging, as the show manages to keep the audience involved and guessing what will happen next all the way through. 

I can’t give too much away concerning what happens at this party, but I will say it’s well worth attending. Even if you don’t know a lot about the Brontë sisters, it’s a fascinating show, with much to learn about the sisters, their stories, and their times, as well as some timeless thoughts about the human experience in general. It’s a compelling script, made all the more compelling by the remarkable pacing, technical qualities, and especially the performances. It’s another excellent show from one of my favorite theatre companies in St. Louis. 

Cassidy Flynn, Rachel Tibbetts, Maggie Conroy, Bess Moynihan
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE is presenting Brontë Sister House Party at The Chapel until August 27, 2022

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