Scarlet is an adaptation of The Scarlet Letter in a very loose sense. For one, it's a musical. In one early scene, Hester Prynne (Rebecca Teran) and the Rev. Arthur Dimmsdale (Isaac Lamb) sing a duet about their secret passion for one another called "Fallen for You." Later, they lie in bed together and crack jokes about the Bible.
Written and composed by Portlander Michelle Horgen, Scarlet is now getting its world premiere at Portland Playhouse's newly renovated theater. The musical is packed with revisionist flourishes, from a rambunctious drinking song called "Before You Fall (for a Puritan Girl)" to a sympathetic solo by Hester's villainous husband, Roger Chillingsworth (Darius Pierce).
As offbeat as that might sound, Scarlet feels brazenly alive. It delivers a sensational rush of wit, romance and tragedy that leaves you shaken in the best way possible.
The first act of Scarlet chronicles Hester's arrival in America. While waiting for her husband to join her, she is drawn to the goofy, goodhearted Dimmsdale, who folds a coded flirtation with Hester into one of his sermons. But when Hester becomes pregnant, the mighty scorn of the Puritan community is aroused with a vengeance. Hester is forced to bear the infamous red "A" for adultery on her dress and raise her daughter Pearl (Eva Hudson Leoniak) alone.
Each song in Scarlet is deployed to enhance the emotional horsepower of the story. The songs are played live by a cello, a piano and an oboe. Horgen delivers lyrics and melodies that crystallize the internal anguish of each character. "Borrow From Tomorrow" perfectly captures Hester's compassion and defiance, "Tortured, Tormented and Lost" reveals the sickly depths of Dimmsdale's self-loathing, and "A Life Most Ordinary" gives Chillingsworth the chance to unleash a show-stopping anthem that lays bare the genuine anguish behind his privileged wrath.
Equally compelling is Daniel Meeker's lighting and scenic design, which capture Hester's isolation and the vindictive brutality of Puritan society. In one scene, Hester is illuminated by a spotlight, while the rest of the cast is bathed in blue light. The set has crimson walls flanked by vertical wooden beams that look eerily like the bars of a jail cell.
The scenes that explore Hester's motives are less perfect. Although we understand what drives Dimmsdale and Chillingsworth the instant they appear onstage, it isn't until late in Scarlet that we finally comprehend why Hester insists on bearing the community's ire in silence. Offering a more detailed portrait of her inner life might have moved the narrative emphasis away from Dimmsdale's suffering and toward Hester's strength.
Yet that missed opportunity doesn't diminish the potency of the play's gory climax, which reveals how deeply bigotry has poisoned both Hester and Dimmsdale.
Ultimately, Scarlet's gruesome culmination illustrates the horror of misogyny and sexual oppression on a visceral level. It doesn't tell you Hester and Dimmsdale are right and their Puritan persecutors wrong: It simply ask us to feel everything they feel.
SEE IT: Scarlet is at Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., portlandplayhouse.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Sunday, 2 pm Saturday and Sunday, through April 1. $34-$44.