By Tim Rosenberger
The lights dim, the curtains part and the eerie, gothic romance pairing the hard life of a young 19th century governess and her mysterious employer comes streaming in from the London stage to a legendary Chicago movie theater.
Since 2009, National Theatre Live has broadcasted live and sometimes prerecorded plays from the London stage theater to cinemas across the world in an attempt to bring faraway theater close to everyone, no matter where they live.
The Music Box Theater, 3733 N. Southport Ave., hosts the program. Stephanie Berlin, Music Box’s head of public relations and promotions, said NT Live was a great fit for the theater.
“The Music Box has been around since 1929, and when it opened, going to the theater, whether it be live theater or the movies, on a Friday night was a big ordeal,” Berlin said. “The movie houses were beautiful, and people would dress up. I kind of think that [live theater broadcast] programming brings some of that excitement and the magic back to really anything.”
The current NT Live production of “Jane Eyre,” based on the famous 1847 Charlotte Brontë novel, follows the heroine’s search for love. Jane (played by Madeleine Worrall), an orphan girl who grows up with her cruel aunt (played by Maggie Tagney), is sent off to an equally unpleasant school.
She grows up, becomes a teacher and eventually a governess in the manor of the mysterious Mr. Rochester (played by Felix Hayes), whose wife has passed away. Despite his harsh and brash manner, Jane and Mr. Rochester start to form a connection, but will this turn into a romance? And what accounts for the strange noises Jane hears in the attic every night? For anyone who hasn’t read “Jane Eyre,” we won’t give that away.
The sets for the production are minimal, merely wooden platforms, ramps and ladders. With 16 actors playing all the roles, the play leaves a lot to the imagination. That being said, there are some props, scenery, creative lighting, moody background music and pyrotechnics to help the audience along.
Berlin said the audiences are mostly people who normally go to actual stage performances. But a fair amount of non-theatergoers also attend. These patrons get a taste of great theater while the theatergoers want to see shows they cannot normally see on their own due to distance and cost.
Susan Murphy and Mary McCudden, audience members for a Jan. 16 “Jane Eyre” screening, go to the theater often and have been to Music Box’s broadcast shows eight and five times respecttively.
Both said the experience of seeing a live theater show broadcasted on a big screen is different than actually being in the theater.
“I wouldn’t say it’s really the same,” Murphy said. “It’s certainly absorbing in the same way.”
The broadcasts are still absorbing because of how close the cameras can get to the actors, McCudden said. That provides a better view than people would probably get even if they went to places like The National Theatre, she said. The downside is someone seeing a play at The Music Box cannot get the immediacy of the show in the same way as the people who are actually seeing it live.
The live shows have a different mood and atmosphere than an actual live stage show, but Murphy said the broadcasts are still a good way for audiences to experience theater. It is easier to get to the movie theater and there is sometimes the draw of big name stars like Academy Award winning actress Helen Mirren, who played Queen Elizabeth II in NT’s “The Audience” in September; “Sherlock” star Benedict Cumberbatch, who starred in NT’s “Hamlet” in November; and Oscar nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who appeared in NT’s “Everyman” in August.
Ticket prices for the broadcasts ($14 in advance and $18 at the door) fall far below the average theater ticket price, more than $100 for a Broadway show.
The Music Box also hosts other broadcast productions, such as those produced by The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, Royal Shakespeare Company and By Experience. The most recent production from one of these companies is Branagh’s adaption of Shakespeare’s comic tragedy “The Winter’s Tale,” which stars Branagh and Judi Dench.
The broadcasts have been a hit for the Music Box. Berlin said some shows do better than others, the ones with name actors usually selling more tickets. “The Winter’s Tale” sold out two of its three showings.
A second Music Box showing of “Jane Eyre” is scheduled at 7:15 p.m. The next showing of Branagh’s “The Winter’s Tale” is Feb. 9 – the Jan. 23 showing is sold out. More information about these and other broadcast shows can be found at musicboxtheatre.com or by calling the Music Box at 773-871-6607.
Berlin said the broadcasts allow people to see shows they are not used to and to explore different avenues.
“It opens up opportunities for them to meet new characters, to see stories told in different manners and it’s a fun way to spend your afternoon,” Berlin said.