THEATER REVIEW: ‘Madwoman’ is the toast of Ghent as season finale

Madwoman of Chaillot/ Ghent Playhouse

WHOA! FROM THE BEGINNING costumer Joanne Maurer and set designer Joe Iuviene and their cohorts collude in shouts and murmurs of basic joie de vivre. The stage fills with life–bloody colors, from murky purples in Iuviene’s beautiful doors through tomato reds and squash oranges in clothing. Colors pinch and prod and demand that you there in the audience wake up! There are patterns and patterns and patterns, bold stripes on the pianist talking to bold stripes on the Juggler, red checks in the tablecloths appearing in the Ragpicker’s vest, flowers spilling all over the delightful Flower Girl’s dress and hat. All the bloody colors and pastels are punctuated with an occasional blue, such as a rich blue shirt and huge exploding blue blossoms on a dress. These people are the Parisian underclass. The villains are in black, of course.

It’s a visual statement about the rest of the play.

Though director Barbara Leavell Smith has made a wonderful production, I must argue with the request she makes in her Director’s Notes: “Don’t try to ‘understand’ this play,” she warns. For some of us, Madwoman demands “understandings” and begs for connections. However color-coated the elements may be, they provoke ideas.

The sly playwright hands us kindergarten morality in tasty clothing. He hints, but leaves us to supply its muted dark side. And what is kindergarten morality? Be good. Don’t hurt others–except when they’re bad people. Then kill them. His Parisian underclass is fairy-tale good; though of course, when collected by a charming, mad upper-classer, it is capable of murderous revolution. After only a mock trial, the villains are executed. Oh, oh, Giraudoux suggests: What a lovely, clean revolution. And in our audience chairs, we are forced to remember what a real revolution is like. (It is no accident that this is a French playwright.) Kindergarten morality, yes–and yet….

Director Smith has taken all Giraudoux’s children’s-book elements, its clearly defined good and evil with an efficient solution, and delivered an entertainment lightly pocked with familiar greedy bad guys. In 2012, don’t we know? It’s a satisfaction like that of witnessing the witch in Hansel & Gretel pushed into the oven. Theatrically satisfying as it is, it does (deliberately, I think) evoke questions about easy death penalties, revenge and revolution.

Smith’s approach to the play is rich with elements of silent film, cartoon, vaudeville, musicals, drama. She inserts a little whimsical directorial spice now and then, with small details such as the gestures of Bernardine Handler (as the Madwoman of St. Sulpice) exactly mimicking the gestures of the title character. Sometimes she causes the whole cast to make the stage ooze with responsive movement.

Madwoman first appeared in 1945; but lines like “What would you prefer in your backyard, an almond tree or an oil well?” resonate for contemporary reasons. Opening night, a ripple moved across the audience when the Sewer-man (played by Mark Fingar) says, “We have nothing but good republicans in the sewer.” In addition, probably no one could stop his mind from connecting Giraudoux’s money-worshipers with those of our day.

Smith offers an extravagant gift in pianist-musical creator-assembler Catherine Schane-Lydon. Onstage at the piano with striped shirt and crossword puzzles, Schane-Lydon colors everything with waltzes (especially waltzes), marches, French impressionism, accordion-playing. She underscores. Sometimes she precisely unisons with actor-gestures or offers a musical punctuation mark to a speech. Of course the Ragpicker gets a rag–a waltzy rag.

I wondered if the energy drop at the beginning of Act II was because Schane-Lydon had exited, but the problem is Giraudoux’s. The scene needs trimming, even though Handler in this production almost saves it.

There are too many excellent performances to describe in this small space. Into the opening scene floats a lavender Nancy Hammell as Aurelia, the Madwoman of Chaillot (Chaillot being a section of Paris). Hammel/Madwoman is a beauty of early middle age, spirited, feminine, reeking of health, vigor, innocence, moral certitude and an almost incidental loss of romantic love. Hammell carries the play with superb sureness and charm.

Paul Murphy’s wicked President begins in cartoon mode and morphs into exquisite high dudgeon. Murphy is never more compelling than when he unleashes his excellent rage.

In a brilliant eleven-o’clock monologue, Mark Wilson (as the Ragpicker impersonating a money-worshiper) traverses the apron, stepping along in vaudeville grapevines with whirling cane, until he finally bursts forth in a frenzy of lust, greed, and truth. What a performance!

In featured roles, Wendy Power Spielmann is a silent-movie-queen oil prospector, and Tyler Prince-Gardiner brings a filmish naturalism to the suicidal Pierre. In small roles, Marion Cimini as the Deaf Girl is perfect, as is Sandra Billings, a strong, crisp Madwoman of La Concorde; and Brian Chute’s uncertain Policeman is fresh and funny.

One of the pleasures for Ghent Playhouse audiences is watching regulars move from starring roles to bit parts and back again. In a small featured role Jill Wanderman moves from leading lady in The Heiress to the Broker, who expels a short, exciting riff on the joy of numbers–money numbers! Lael Locke (the Baron) has a few well-delivered lines here; the amazing Tracy Tripp has walk-ons; Michael Meier takes on a less stellar character. Audiences are grateful. Solid actors in minor roles are not always the case in community theater.

A reviewer longs for an evening that provokes absolutely no complaints. This one comes close. Madwoman runs through June 3rd. Don’t miss it.

 

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