The Madwoman of Chaillot
Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
A Noise Within
Through November 11
Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot (translated by Maurice Valency) has always been one of my favorite plays. Written in 1943 and premiering after the playwright’s death in 1945, it’s a witty whimsical takedown of perfidious capitalism and a paean to the artists and free spirits who oppose them. True, it’s a fantastical story with a confectionary feel-good ending that a hard-bitten critic probably has no business celebrating. But the triumph of good over evil buoys its heart, and the cleverness of Giraudoux’s language helps keep the bathos at bay.
That said, Madwoman, while it holds up on the page, is a wordy text, whose dense exposition, especially in Act 1, makes it challenging to perform and to stage. The current production at A Noise Within under Stephanie Shroyer’s direction is a workmanlike effort crafted by a seasoned ensemble. One’s grateful to have it performed, but its lunatic charm is never fully realized.
Much of the play takes place in a Paris café frequented by the title character, otherwise known as Countess Aurelia (Deborah Strang), and her friends: the savvy Ragpicker (George Villas); the canny Deaf Mute (Jay Lee); and the sweet and kindly young waitress Irma (Leslie Lank), among them. The action jumpstarts around a meeting of self-important public figures, dominated by the President (Wesley Mann) and the Prospector (Armin Shimerman), who are engineering a plot to dig up Paris in order to secure the oil the Prospector insists he’s detected there. Denied a permit, the Prospector has instigated the murder of the City Architect — but his plan is foiled when his agent Pierre (Rafael Goldstein) tosses the intended bomb into the river instead. Pierre then faints and is carried into the café, where he wakes to a love-at-first-sight glimpse of the lovely Irma.
Apprised of the men’s evil intentions, the Countess, in Act 2, lures them to her cellar and a maze of Paris sewers from which they are unlikely to return — but not before holding a trial in which the accused, in absentia, are adjudged for their crimes, with the Ragpicker enumerating their misdeeds in deliciously satirical prose. That satire remains the production’s most salient feature, for while Giraudoux was writing about the corruption in French society under the Nazis, his critique remains frighteningly relevant today.
As director, Shroyer delivers a perfectly acceptable rendering of the text, smoothly handled by all (as one would expect of a classical theater ensemble), but missing the vital spark that transforms a literary work into a glowingly dramatic one. This is nowhere truer than with the lead performance: The veteran Strang successfully summons a fluttery yet imperious presence, but at bottom, beneath the frolicking mannerisms, the Countess is an astute woman who knows the difference between reality and fantasy, and it’s that knowing discrimination that we need to see more of.
Among the other major players, Shimerman is notable as the ruthless prospector; Goldstein stands out as the romantic and vulnerable Pierre; and Lank is well-cast as Pierre’s love interest, Irma. However, a key, potentially hilarious scene in which the Countess conspires with her madwomen pals, Constance (Susan Angelo) and Gabrielle (Jill Hill), to do away with the bad guys falls flat because Angelo and (especially) Hill mug throughout.
Designer Angela Balogh Calin‘s costumes are fun, as the Countess favors the fashions of 1885, and she and her lady friends deck themselves out with crinolines, feathers and lace. But Calin‘s set is a bit nondescript and relays little of the gaiety and warmth that Chaillot represents.
A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena; performed in rep, call for schedule; through November 11. (656) 356-3100, anoisewithin.org. Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.