Liam Tamne as Heathcliff surrounded by ‘The Moors’ in the West Coast premiere of Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Credit: Kevin Berne

Bold British director/adaptor Emma Rice and her new company, Wise Children, return to Berkeley Rep with an innovative and imaginative take on Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, Wuthering Heights.

Wuthering Heights, Berkeley Rep, through Jan. 1

Yes, it’s Wuthering Heights, the Gothic novel you either adore and re-read occasionally or the one you were forced to read in high school and have never touched since then. I fall somewhere in between these reactions to the book. I found the prose as over-blown as the Yorkshire Moors they describe. But at times, I embraced the tragic, doomed love story of Heathcliff, the waif adopted by the upper-class Earnshaws to live at Wuthering Heights, and Catherine Earnshaw, his star-crossed soulmate, even after death.

If you have seen any of Emma Rice’s productions at Berkeley Rep, including The Wild Bride (2011), Tristan & Yseult (2013) and 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (2016), you will remember that she uses a recognized tale and turns it on its head using actors and musicians, magical stage techniques, creative costumes, puppetry, inventive stage sets and props, all with a touch of irreverence and humor.

And this effort is no exception. With a super-talented cast, starring Leah Brotherhead as Catherine and Liam Tamne playing Heathcliff, many actors play several roles, including the personification of the singing and dancing “Yorkshire Moors” (with Jordan Laviniere as the leader).

Jordan Laviniere with Young Heathcliff in the West Coast premiere of Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Credit: Kevin Berne

Until I reviewed the book for this production, I had forgotten that the story reaches down several generations to other unhappy and mismatched lives and marriages, not to mention the plethora of deaths. And the play does generally follow the plot of the novel. So many characters die that hand-held chalkboards were comically used as tombstones to help the audience keep track.

But despite all of the above, Wuthering Heights is difficult to stage while preserving the solitary life of the Earnshaw and Linton families captured by the novel. The amusing touches of humor, Ian Ross’s rousing musical score, and the accompanying dance numbers alter the piece’s overall feel. It’s unclear whether Rice and the Wise Children are lightly mocking Brontë’s story or simply giving the audience a bit of respite from the tragedies.

Other Emma Rice productions were based on folk tales and stories with more straightforward plots that could easily benefit from the addition of clever comedy, singing, dancing, and prancing. With the character-heavy, generational nature of Wuthering Heights, the combination just doesn’t mesh as well. The almost three-hour production is an ingenious event, despite these quibbles. And I recommend it.

Wuthering Heights is a National Theatre, Wise Children, Bristol Old Vic, and York Theatre Royal co-production in association with Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights runs through Jan. 1, 2023, at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. There is one intermission. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing is required. Tickets, $19.50-$124, can be purchased online or by phone at 510-647-2949.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...