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THE MADWOMAN
OF CHAILLOT
By Jean Giraudoux
Directed by Donna Feore
At the Tom Patterson Theatre. Till September 24, 2017

Seana McKenna (Countess Aurelie) with members of the company (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

While it is too long for the fable it spins, Giraudoux’s comic fantasy is witty, whimsical, and wise, and Donna Feore’s colourful production, though unable to find a single unifying style for it, attempts to mask the languid sections by rapturous humour and a sort of light, romantic unreality created by Teresa Przybylki’s set and costume design and Kimberly Purtell’s lighting. Peter McBoyle’s sound design serves up a little “jazz hot”—relic of a vanished Paris. Giraudoux wrote the play in the early 40s, during WWII, probably to sound notes of resistance to the enemies of France and its heights of culture and civilization. The title character, Countess Aurelie, is thought to be mad because she lives in a world of tattered fantasy, still pining for a long-lost lover. She certainly has lady friends (each from a different district) who could be certifiably mad: one (Constance) clinging to a droll fantasy of a pet dog that is always invisible to everyone; another (Gabrielle) looking like a rouged doll in ringlets, ribbons, and bustle, who hears voices from her hot water bottle and eagerly awaits an imagined suitor; and a third (Josephine) who, despite her rational knowledge of law, keeps waiting insanely for a parade that never comes by. Their scene-a-quatre in Part 2 plays with delightful delirium like something out of Alice in Wonderland, but the essential point of the play is that despite these women’s mad fantasies, the world has changed dangerously for the worse, because (according to the Ragman, the voice of rag-tag wisdom) “little by little, the pimps have taken over the world.” Greed is dominant and people are publicly worshipping the golden calf. When this dire news is brought to Aurelie, she devises a miraculous plan to rid the world of these parasites. Her plan involves making love the one decent motive for living: this plus Giraudoux’s magic literary wand that summons up a fantasy solution that comes full blown in this production with smoke and a farcical parade of victims.

Giraudoux’s play will undoubtedly remind some of Saroyan’s old-fashioned romantic and sentimental humanism, but Giraudoux’s is, perhaps, more sophisticated, though also far wordier (new English translation by David Edney). Set at first in an airy café in Chaillot (a district of Paris), where a President, a Baron, and a Broker meet to hatch a plot to make even more money (a plot creating a fantasy of oil under the streets), each rapacious man given the floor for a monologue, the play sets up its conflicts plainly. The greedy ones against the world of little men: waiter, peddler, juggler, press agent, police officer, kitchen girl, handyman, sewer worker, deaf woman, street singer, lifeguard, street musician, etc. The cast shines in these disparate character-sketches, led by Ben Carlson’s brusque, rude President who rails against the assorted “little” people for being puppets. Actually, he has a point: Giraudoux’s play revels in the very strings it manipulates to control the characters and thereby lead them to his pointed conclusion.

There are wonderful comic contributions from Cyrus Lane as a pragmatically helpful Sewer-Worker, and Gareth Potter as a Lifeguard who can’t swim and therefore saves only those drowning only on land, while Scott Wentworth makes a notably ruminative, cynical Ragman. Antoine Yared as Pierre and Mikaela Davis as his beloved deliver tender romance, but the most engaging performances come, not unexpectedly, from the madwomen: Kim Horsman as canine-obsessed Constance; Marion Adler as wispy, prudish, aging doll Gabrielle; Yanna McIntosh as legal-minded Josephine; and, of course, Seana McKenna as Aurelie, though she doesn’t make as much of the eccentricity as she could. But there is more diverting comedy than weighty drama, and I could have done without Wayne Best in a handlebar moustache and black cloak that he twirls like a villain from silent-screen melodrama. The final confrontation between Aurelie and the villains is treated as broad farce, devolved from Marx Brothers zaniness but lacking their freewheeling genius.

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