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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TARTUFFE

By Moliere
Translated by Ranjit Bolt
Directed by Chris Abraham
At the Festival Theatre. Till October 13, 2017

Maev Beaty (Elmire) and Tom Rooney (Tartuffe) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Although you would never know it from Chris Abraham’s wildly raucous and coarse version that is about as low as low farce could go, Tartuffe is a high comedy about arch hypocrisy and other human foibles. Moliere and his play ran afoul of the Church and even, to some appreciable degree, Louis XIV. The best version I ever saw (in Richard Wilbur’s superb English translation) was Jean Gascon’s, in which the incomparable William Hutt gave one of his greatest performances as the title character who dupes the master of a bourgeois household by displays of false piety. Gascon had an almost unbeatable cast, all of whom seemed to be marvellously suited to their roles, and Gascon had indisputable Gallic flair as director. Chris Abraham has a few strong actors in his cast but Abraham is a populist director with a finger on the pulse of fads and manners, and sometimes his work is highly engaging and intelligent—as in his staging of The Matchmaker and the central comedy of The Taming of the Shrew. However, his version of Tartuffe is re-contextualised far from France, beginning (for no sensible reason) with a loud wild party in progress (called “an orgy in Babylon” by the imposing Mme. Pernelle) and then later showing us a Tartuffe who strips down to his very underwear. While this is undeniably caviar to the general. it is poison to those who favour wit, sense, sensibility, and style.

Tartuffe is not, of course, the most important character. Thank goodness, for even in this wayward production, Tom Rooney’s bizarre interpretation of the role as a sort of latter-day Rasputin with long, oily locks and a black jacket over a black cassock, who has trouble with English pronunciation as well as the verse rhythms that he slows down as if in need of an ESL instructor, doesn’t hold a candle to Graham Abbey’s exceptionally funny and vulnerable Orgon, a man with blinders on, even though he is in peak physical condition as he races up and down Julie Fox’s two-storey setting (contemporary chic with modern appurtenances), makes himself espresso and smoothies, performs push-ups, and makes a certifiable ass of himself by worshipping his false idol who has oiled his way into his trust, guardianship, and generosity. Abbey is also one who knows his way with Ranjit Bolt’s jaunty mod rhyming dialogue that dares to be vulgar in the showiest contemporary vein, making audience and Moliere feel “fucked” all the way down to the denouement. Another sterling verse-speaker is Rosemary Dunsmore as Madame Pernelle (Orgon’s mother), a tempest of disgruntlement who earns a great laugh when she complains aggressively “May I be heard?” after her mighty gusts of grievances. And a third (sleekly sexy, to boot) is Maev Beaty as Elmire (Orgon’s much-tested wife). As her clear-eyed, pontificating brother Cleante, Michael Blake also has moments of gleaming articulation, as does Rod Beattie as officious Monsieur Loyal.

Apart from losing the French flavour of the play, and making a mess of many scenes—none as much as the attempted seduction scene, where the designer’s living-room furniture affords the most improbable hiding-place for Orgon to overhear his false “idol’s” hypocrisy—director Abraham fails to harmonize his cast, or, at least, to temper many of the outrages performed by Anusree Roy as Dorine, the saucy maid. Unable to negotiate the verse with any semblance of real impertinent wit, Roy is guilty of the worst excesses of Bollywood, with her incessant eye-rolls, and flamboyant overacting in which virtually every corporeal extremity appears to be in motion, whether warranted or not.

Director Abraham continues his acknowledgement of the modern age—or, at least, of North American vulgarity—by the very pointed allusions to the disgusting blight of Trumpism. All good for easy laughter, but the production exposes some of the worst aspects of Abraham as director. Instead of illuminating Moliere’s great satiric comedy with very dark undertones, this production revels in being a simple, silly fable that is unbalanced, unconvincing, and vulgarly conceived. It is certainly a crowd-pleaser, as Trump has been for his rabid base. But as recent events have shown, a crowd-pleaser can cause a nation to lose its collective mind, let alone its taste.