Aurora Theatre Revives Zola’s
Thérèse Raquin was the first major novel of Emile Zola; Parisian critics at the time called the realistic work of fiction “putrid literature” and “a quagmire of slime and blood.” These are strong words for one of the greatest French novels of all time. Zola transformed the book into a play which opened in Paris in 1873. Critics were scandalized as to what they saw on the stage, causing a great outcry from that dignified body.
Many theater scholars contend that this melodrama was the first play in what is called the Modern Theatre Period. It was three years ahead of Ibsen’s A Doll House, which many believe was the forerunner of the modern plays. Thérèse Raquin contains a whirlwind of lust, murder and revenge, and the play is considered the fountainhead of naturalism in a double and possibly a triple sense. Zola himself wrote a Naturalist manifesto in the preface to his dramatization of the book.
Zola’s melodrama is seldom revived, due to the old fashioned flowery speech of the characters. In October of 1945, the play was translated by Thomas Job, and it starred the great Eva La Gallienne in the title role. She was supported by Victor Joy and Dame May Whitty and it ran for 96 performances at the Biltmore Theatre in New York. A 1997 production for New York's Classic Stage Company brought OBIE awards for actress Elizabeth Marvel and director David Esbjornson. There was a musical version presented recently on Broadway, Thou Shall Not, which was not a success. Kate Winslet is bringing the title character to the big screen again with Dame Judi Dench as the manipulative Madame Raquin.
The sinister tale is set in 19th Century Paris where Camille (Jonathan Rhys Williams) is unhappily married to Thérèse (Stephanie Gularte). She embarks on a fervent love affair with Laurent (Mark Elliot Wilson), who is a lodger and best friend of Camille. The lovers plot to murder Camille under the very nose of his doting mother (Joy Carlin). This sets in motion a chain of events leading to a nightmarish conclusion. The play is mixture of frank sexuality and melodramatic flourishes.
The Aurora Theatre has mounted a sharply staged production with top flight dramatic actors giving superb performances. The first act is especially brilliant, with the six characters speaking in a naturalistic way that was prevalent during the 19th Century. The banter among the actors is fascinating and well performed. The second act becomes a bit too melodramatic for modern audiences and even the last suspense scene is overly exaggerated.
Stephanie Gularte is fascinating as adulterous wife Thérèse. She is able to portray every emotion that is demanded by the character. She has great profundity in her scenes after the wedding to Laurent. Mark Elliot Wilson as the seducer is convincing in his passion of Thérèse in the first act, and the unpredictability of his anger at the end of the play is very real.
Jonathan Rhys Williams is excellent as the sickly, obnoxious husband who is constantly driveling about some minor point. Joy Carlin excels in the impressive role of Madam Raquin. Her worrying and chattering throughout the play is extraordinary. She is especially spellbinding in her incapable efforts to communicate after her stoke.
Three outstanding actors round out this august cast of players. Stephen Pawley plays the haughty and fussy Grivet, who has every movement of his life timed down to the minute. He is wonderful in the role. Owen Murphy as the retired chief inspector is properly talkative in his character. Danielle Rae Levin plays his flighty niece, and she is very titillating in the role.
Callie Floor’s 19th century French bourgeois set is very good for the three sided theatre. The back wall contains a dirty skylight immersed in a beautiful violet sunset that is quiet striking. The light plays beautifully on to the bed of Thérèse.
Thérèse Raquin plays thru July 27 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, Ca. For tickets call 510-843-4822.
The theatre will open its 2003-2004 season with David Mamet’s The Old Neighborhood on September 12.