The Madwoman of Chaillot
Also see Sharon's recent review of Blue
Some of the ideas in Jean Giraudoux's 1945 comedy, The Madwoman of Chaillot, are uncomfortably timely. The play opens with a financial meeting between the corrupt president of a new corporation, the ignorant figurehead who has lent his prestige to the corporation, and the president's financier who has generated massive profits for them by manipulating the corporation's stock price through false press releases. Sound vaguely familiar? Enter Aurelia, the Madwoman of Chaillot. Her outrageous dress instantly marks her as someone out of step with society, and her behavior completes the picture. She lives in a dream world where people are good and charitable, and she assumes everyone else lives there, too. Indeed, many do - Aurelia has many followers, mostly among the outcast poor - because they prefer the illusion of her world to the reality of theirs. To the extent the play presents the question of whether Aurelia is mad for not recognizing the reality around her, or whether it is the world itself that has gone mad, The Madwoman of Chaillot certainly speaks to audiences of today.
In its current production at Pasadena's Arroyo Repertory Theatre, the show gets a very uneven airing. Joanne McGee has mixed results as the Madwoman; she is not quite outrageous enough in her characterization of Aurelia's mistaken view of herself as a beneficent member of the upper class, but she hits the bullseye with Aurelia's moments of sanity. For when Aurelia's loyal subjects decide to tell her the truth and explain that the world is populated by evil, McGee reacts with a hurt puppy dog expression which makes Aurelia appear, for the moment, not as the Countess she purports to be, but just a sad deluded woman in a ridiculous outfit who instantly earns our sympathy.
The really outstanding performance in this production comes from John Serembe as one of the poor, a ragpicker who happens to have such a facility for language the poor frequently assign him to act as spokesman. It is the ragpicker who is called upon to remove the wool from Aurelia's eyes, and in Serembe's speech we hear not only his words, but the life experiences that brought his character to this point.
The most significant problem with the production is the staging of the play's climax, which is accomplished in dark lighting with many characters wearing unmoving masks over their faces while their lines are piped in over the sound system. The effect, particularly in the play's outdoor venue, is suitably creepy, but it also diminishes the play's ability to convey its message. Some of the piped-in dialogue is incomprehensible, and the use of masks on actors who are wearing costumes still easily recognizable as other characters raises a troublesome ambiguity - are these masked characters supposed to be the characters of their masks, or are they the familiar characters of their costumes just pulling one over on the gullible madwoman? The difference is the one between a comic farce where good triumphs over evil, and a tragedy where evil prospers and good completely loses its grip on reality.
Mention must be made about the unusually strong production values. The show is played outdoors in a church courtyard. Across from the stage, a single row of ten chairs is ready for the audience. Director/designer Gary White has created an extremely impressive set, with a style that perfectly blends in with the exterior of the church. What is most impressive about the set, though, is that something this huge and well done was created for an audience of ten, as sets of lesser quality have been seen for audiences ten times that size. Similarly, Jude Lucas's costumes are of surprising quality for a production aimed at an audience this small. One can't watch this production without thinking there's no possible way it can break even. This must truly be art for art's sake. The Madwoman would be proud.
Arroyo Repertory Theatre presents The Madwoman of Chaillot by Jean Giraudoux. Direction and Set Design by Gary White; Costumes, Properties and Masks by Jude Lucas; Lighting Design by Doug Rynerson; Sound Design by Kevin Crowley; Makeup and Hair Design by Wendy Hayes; Art Design/Graphics by John Serembe; Press Relations by Philip Sokoloff; Box Office Management by Felipe Galvez. Featuring the music of Eric Coates.
The Madwoman of Chaillot plays at the Arroyo Repertory Theatre in Pasadena Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. through September 28. $18. For reservations, call (626) 398-6522. For more information, click www.arroyorepertorytheatre.com.