Nancy Hammell and Wendy Power Spielmann; photo: Daniel Region
The Madwoman of Chaillot by Jean Giraudoux. Directed by Barbara Leavell Smith.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Paul Murphy and Mark Wilson; photo: Daniel Region
Fracking is clearly nothing new. The word may be new - it doesn’t appear in my American Heritage dictionary, but the concept is an old one and even the word may have its source in the French language: fracas from fracasse from the Italian fracasso - meaning to make an uproar but, informally, in our language to mean "a noisy, disorderly fight or quarrel: a brawl." Surely the French playwright Jean Giraudoux in his most annoying work for the stage, was familiar with this word and its meaning when he wrote the play. He created a premise that could be torn from the headlines of our own newspapers this month: the controversy over obtaining oil and gas from hidden pockets beneath our streets, our homes, our cities and towns. The very busy successful entrepreneurs who want to "painlessly" dig for these deposits aim to do so not to ease the burdens of the occupants of this world, but for personal gain and the glory of high profits. And this was what the playwright wrote about in the mid-1940s.
The President and the Baron conspire with the Prospector, in this play, to disassemble the city of Paris to obtain oil from beneath its surface. They can taste and smell the oil in the water from Paris’s wells. They can feed off it, suck the substructure dry. The can destroy what mankind has created just to enjoy profits. What they never realize is that the common man, the lowest common denominators of mankind, a ragpicker, a suicide, a waitress, a sewerman, and a crazy woman who cannot leave behind her the 19th century love she lost, might interfere with the fracas, the fracasse, the fracking plans they are instituting and could save mankind from a self-destruction that is just not going to happen.
My dictionary defines a madwoman as "A woman who is, or seems to be, mentally ill." But what is true mental illness can only be defined as seeing reality from a different point of view. Countess Aurelia, the madwoman of Chaillot, played with insight by Nancy Hammell, sees things from a very personal p.o.v. and she interprets what she sees from a viewpoint that might well be believed to be a filmic closeup. Her passion is collecting gizzards and bones from her favorite restaurant to use to feed the stray cats of her world. When she is distracted from this career path to save not just Paris but mankind she is equally directed. Nothing will distract her, not for long anyway, and nothing will prevent her from achieving her aims. Sadly there is an inevitability in this that clouds the play, but the message contained in this work is irrefutable so who cares if it is predictable.
The new production at the Ghent Playhouse takes predictability one step too far, I think. A lengthy director’s note in the program prepares you for this as Barbara Leavell Smith describes her concept for the play of turning the author’s monologues into "ballets" using "enhanced movement, grown up childplay." While her use of this device might have been effective if used sparingly, it seems she could not resist using her entire cast, the good guys and the bad guys, in this overly cloying technique which only serves to turn the world of Giraudoux into nothing but madpeople. She robs Aurelia of clarity. She limits the humanity of redemption. It is too bad because there are some fascinating performances in this community theater adventure into neo-absurdism.
High on the list of credible performances is that of Wendy Power Spielmann as The Prospector. She understands the credibility of madness and her strength lies in her superb way with the words of the playwright. She makes the concept of destruction, incidental and intended, both realistic and achievable. Equally well played is the Sewerman in the talented hands of Mark Fingar. He creates a gruff, stable human being who just happens to know the darkest secrets of mankind and his goal is to share them with the only powerful figure he has met, the Countess. He has a wonderful moment with his own toes that seems to explain his desire to save things, to maintain the status quo.
Bernardine Handler is a lovely Mlle. Gabrielle, the childlike Madwoman of St. Sulpice. Sally Dodge is remarkably sane as the Madwoman of Passy, the lovely Constance whose dog, Dickie, is an obsession she cannot relinquish. Sandra Billings plays the judgmental Mlle. Josephine, the Madwoman of La Concorde. She brings an airiness to the official proceedings that Countess Aurelia seems to need before she can pronounce sentence on those businessmen who would destroy for profit.
The President is played with gusto and a darkness by Paul Murphy. Lael Locke is the Baron who would lend an official stamp of approval to an evil plot in order to restore a fortune lost. The rag-picker as played by Mark Wilson is a compulsive creature who can only do what he feels compelled to do and he will do it thoroughly until everything he aims to for is his own even if he is willing to share the spoils with the nicest people.
The play has a pair of young lovers, symbols of the goodness in mankind that must be preserved at any cost. Tyler Prince-Gardiner and Roma Sabino succeed in these roles. The rest of the company - and there are a lot of them, make their characters very specific and very real.
The play only loses focus and only creates laps in the central focus during the danced-through monologues that the director seems to fear. It’s a pity because this robs the play and the people who are undertaking to play these roles of their reality. We cannot all be mad. We cannot all be devices of one another’s dreams.
Technically this show is beautifully realized. Joe Iuviene’s sets are brilliant and evocative and Bill Camp’s lighting is as emotive and professional as the play’s characters own motives. The costumes by Joanne Maurer are fine and help to define the various characters inner characteristics. I especially liked the attire for the Deaf Girl, the Prospector, Gabrielle, the Little Woman and the Baron. The most interesting addition to the play, and sometimes the most disturbing, was the musical accompaniment provided by the talented Cathy Schane-Lydon at both the piano and the accordion: sometimes just right, sometimes overpoweringly loud.
This is not a play you will have many opportunities to see. In it’s first American production it ran for a year and a half. Here in Ghent, NY you only have two more weekends. A play that remarkably speaks to our own futures - and I know a madwoman or two I could talk with about that - this is your chance to open your mind and heart to an issue that seems unwilling to die, to walk through a stone doorway and down a never-ending staircase. Watch the folk of Chaillot take charge. Learn a lesson or two.
The Madwoman of Chaillot plays weekends through June 3 at the Ghent Playhouse on Route 66 in Ghent New York. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-392-6264.