Jean Giraudoux's posthumously produced The Madwoman of Chaillot is a problematic work to stage successfully these days. First produced in Paris in 1945, a year after Giraudoux's death, it deals with corporate greed and its negative effects on the world's ecological well-being, issues that have become even more pressing as we race to the end of one century and hurl ourselves into another. However, the ephemeral quality of Giraudoux's writing is a blend of irony and sentiment that has not aged well and requires a touch as light and sophisticated as a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. Without that French je ne sais quoi, its allegorical story of an aging, delusional woman and her assorted band of neighborhood riff-raff saving the world from the greedy capitalists in one afternoon can quickly become cloying, preposterous, and dull.
Sadly, Centerfold Productions' revival at the West End Theatre was about as light as a concrete soufflé and about as French as McDonald's fries. Kathleen Brant's brash and busy staging, without wit, subtlety, or flair, was completely at odds with Giraudoux's delicately improbable fable. The decision to keep the play contemporary, with the inclusion of incessantly ringing mobile phones (even the beggars in the street had them), added nothing to the already overburdened text while further underscoring the fact that despite the topicality of its central theme, the whimsical nature of the play has kept it firmly locked in its original era.
In the title role of the Countess Aurelia, Kathleen Huber bore a striking physical resemblance to Martita Hunt, who created the role in the New York premiere in 1948. The only performer with an idea of the style required, her handling of the mad tea party in Act Two momentarily lifted the production to heights of hilariously sublime insanity. But even with her light touch and impeccable comic timing, she still gave an interpretation that was more Dolly Levi than deluded Parisian countess. The other performances all suffered from an excess of mugging, posturing, and sledgehammer delivery, with no apparent understanding of or connection to the fragility of Giraudoux's original work - barely scratching the surface of their complex characters. In all fairness to the cast, they were up against material that has defeated performers as accomplished as Katherine Hepburn to Angela Lansbury, in translations far more elegant than the coarse, uncredited one used here.
Centerfold gave the piece an elaborate production, Tim Golebiewski's sets, Sarah Steinbach's costumes and Jean Jacques's lighting lending a colorful, if not entirely French, style to the proceedings. But despite its Equity showcase status, the heavy air of a community theatre in over its head surrounded the evening. While it is always admirable for a theatre group to take on a difficult project and test its limits, there is also a responsibility to make smart decisions in its risk-taking. No matter the intention, poor choice in repertory can hinder more than help growth, and unfortunately, Centerfold Productions' The Madwoman of Chaillot went over like the proverbial lead balloon.
(Also featuring Robert Amore, Chuck Brown, Matthew
Coes, Danielle deLuise, Kristie Lee Dickson,
James Fackler, Breton Frazier, Phillip Garfinkle,
Mary Grace, Richard Kent Green, Denni Lee Heiges,
Jeffrey Swan Jones, Paul Kawecki, Linda Kreis,
Robin Lawson, Greg Paroff, Donovan Patton,
George W. Reily, Tom Richter, Jared J. Roxby,
Tatijana Shoan, Baz Snider, Stanislaus Verspyk.)
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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita