Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Marie Ndiaye's Hilda is a Chilling Piece of Theatre with a Tour de Force Performance by Ellen Karas

Also see Richard's reviews of Enchanted April and Well

Marco Barricelli and Ellen Karas
American Conservatory Theatre's First Look Series is presenting acclaimed French-African writer Marie Ndiaye's first play, Hilda. This will be the play's first English language presentation translated from the original French by Erika Rundle. The 90-minute, no intermission, three-character play presents Chicago actress Ellen Karas in the spellbinding role of a "liberal thinking" housewife who virtually enslaves a maid named Hilda whom we never see.

Hilda's complex plot has hidden meanings relating to political situations in today's world. Basically, Hilda is a taut psychological thriller about the mysterious relationship between an upper class housewife, Mrs. Lemarchand (Ellen Karas), and Hilda, a beautiful yet unseen woman she hires to care for her children. The woman explains to Hilda's working class husband Frank (Marco Barricelli) at the beginning of the drama that she has a marriage without love, can't get along with the kids and she loves the name Hilda. She wants Frank's wife to be the maid and nanny, and she will be treated grandly and equally. She is even willing to toss in a little sexual interest if Frank is willing. It sounds like one sweet deal to the low income family.

Hilda goes to work, and as the play progresses the maid's own personal life is rapidly consumed by Mrs. Lemarchand to the point where Hilda is ultimately destroyed by the needy and greedy employer. Thoughout the play the employer constantly proclaims her liberal qualifications even as she affirms her dominance over the maid, and finally, Mrs. Lemarchand goes out of control with her demands on the maid's time, even keeping her overnight from her own husband and children.

Much of the dialogue reminds me of that of playwrights Harold Pinter or Genet with a smattering of David Lynch's screenplay writing. (Playwright Ndiaye admits that her favorite films are by Mr. Lynch, and she is very influenced by his work.) The words comes tumbling out of Mrs. Lemarchand's mouth toward the almost mute Frank who just listens.

Ellen Karas as the wealthy and manipulative wife dominates the thriller, giving a captivating performance. She pleads, sniffs on occasion and wheels and deals to the weak husband of Hilda. She shows the dark side of her nature as she roars like a lion when things don't go her way. Karas is mesmerizing on stage for the full 90 minutes, giving one of the great performances this year.

ACT core actor Marco Barricelli, usually a dominant actor, brilliantly underplays his role as the weak-will and almost voiceless husband. His manner of listening to the verbose woman is marvelous; the expressions and movements of his face and body are completely effective to the part. Lauren Grace plays the small part of Corinne, Hilda's sister, a fiesty individual who stands up to the employer.

Hilda on one level is an abstract play about slavery and about one woman's pathological control over another. The drama explores "indebtedness" on many levels and the deep resentment that results when a person becomes overly indebted to someone else. The play can also subconsciously refer to global relationships and how certain nations can be over generous to poorer nations, eventually enslaving them.

Set designer David Eastman has devised a stark, white set on the long Zeum Theatre stage that is striking, with dense, dark shadows to denote the passage of time. An outstanding long and steep staircase is located in the center of the stage where Mrs. Lemarchand ascends and descends like a regal person. Props are very sparse since the action is focused on the actors rather than objects. A large, hazy photograph of Hilda slowly appears against the stark white walls center stage. It gives a ghostly appearance.

Hilda plays the the Zeum Theatre, 4th and Howard Street, San Francisco through February 26th. Tickets are available at the A.C.T. Box Office at 405 Geary Street, San Francisco or by calling 415-749-2228 on online at and at the Zeum Theatre starting one hour before the performance.

The next A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program will be Michel Marc Bouchard's Lilies, opening on March 10th starring A.C.T. core member Gregory Wallace. The A.C.T. will also present Female Transport by Steve Gooch at the Zeum from March 8 through April 3rd with ACT core member Steven Anthony Jones. This plays in repertory with Lilies. Lisa Kron's New York hit Well runs through March 13.

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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