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St. Louis by Richard Green

The Madwoman of Chaillot

The Madwoman of ChaillotI imagine that every medium-sized town in America has a large pool of talented older actors who continually polish their craft while finding new ways of brightening up the tarnished trophies of human culture. Certainly it's true here, and an ace squadron of them have been put into service in Jean Giraudoux's famous play at the A.E. Hotchner theatre.

Donna Weinsting gloriously occupies the center of it all. Or what we see of her. Her cherubic face sits like a maraschino cherry atop a billowing, glittering blancmange of scarves and pearls, under a large auburn wig and a feathered hat. The effect is something like a fluffy Everest as she floats here and there, luxuriating in her own epigrams and fantasies to the perfectly understandable delight of all around.

But the show begins with a group of arbitrageurs plotting to destroy Paris (somehow, inevitably, this becomes synonymous with 'destroying the world') by turning it into a vast oil field. That their next step in development leads them to stage a mad bombing (for that oil) is just one of the creepy, accidental intrusions of our own evening news into this cartoon of café culture.

Myron Freedman and Richard Lewis are exceptional in the group of plotters. Bruce Collins, Brad Slavik, and Archie Coleman provide lovable support at the café tables nearby. Tim Kidwell and Gary Feder, the first pair of conspirators, seemed a bit 'actor-ish' or representational opening night, chuckling forcedly over their nefarious plans. But we are told that the French audiences of this play's vintage didn't want good actors as much as they wanted a good time. So Mr. Kidwell and Mr. Feder are probably more accurate than I give them credit for in their portrayals. Certainly, they are not alone: even Mr. Freedman and Mr. Lewis lapse into the same representational style later on. But that particular section, the last half of Act Two, is purely for fun anyway. (Mr. Freedman is the best at skating effortlessly between the machinations of Act One and the absurdity of Act Two.)

Emily Strembicki gets a nice Act One curtain speech to remind us that there is a love story bouncing around in the trunk of this 1940s vehicle (posthumously published in 1945). Jake Bantel is in her sights as the unwilling henchman of Mr. Lewis, and he's a perfectly good male ingénue. And while most ingénues exist at the center of their own solar systems, they are mere planetoids in Giraudoux's work, distantly but inescapably orbiting that giant white glowing object, Ms. Weinsting.

Bradley Calise (the ragpicker) seems a bit put-out, and a bit off-putting as a raging idealist who, like Mr. Slavik in Act Two, has a lot of 'splaining to do about the lives of Western untouchables. Mr. Calise may feel awkward about the strange bits of dead fern that are suddenly sticking out of his head, after weeks of serious rehearsal. His fanciful headgear and orange hi-tops are courtesy of the extremely talented and extremely enthusiastic costumer Alex Fennell who, in case you hadn't guessed, lays things on with a trowel.

Mr. Calise, so fearless in the recent rock musical Hedwig, is victimized here by both his costumer and a long and unfunny speech lampooning the super-rich, in an otherwise serviceable translation by Maurice Valency. My only advice is that Mr. Calise should perhaps borrow some of Ms. Weinsting's voluminous amethyst and mauve stuffing to prance around with and pass the time. His brief foray up into the audience helps a little in breaking up the tension of his high-button shoe of a soliloquy. But let the record show that Mr. Calise is being very brave throughout, as usual. Mr. Slavik, who was so elegant as the captain of the Titanic a few years ago, is quite funny revealing the secrets of Parisian sewers.

Most reviewers will tell you the real reason to see this show is to enjoy a flock of old hens plotting to save the world, if only in their imaginations, in spite of their obvious mental frailties. Director Eleanor Schwetye has obtained some very heavy hitters for the task: Eleanor Mullin, Suzanne Greenwald, and Diane Peterson. Just to see one of these women listed in the program of a play will usually set a critic's heart a-flutter, so it's quite an accomplishment to have them all on stage at once (and probably for the only time, ever).

Ms. Greenwald, the one I am least familiar with over the last 30 years, is a model of gentility and deferential dementia as the Madwoman of St. Sulpice, intimately conferring with two or more imaginary tagalongs. Ms. Mullin, as the Madwoman of Passy, once again shows a first-class flair for subtle camp as she purrs and claws the scenery in Act Two. Ms. Peterson is absolutely adorable as the Madwoman of La Concorde, who politely lays down the law for the carnival-style trial and punishment of all evil-doers. I'm sure someone, somewhere, has calculated the centuries of acting experience compiled between them and Ms. Weinsting but I, of course, am too much the gentleman to speculate in those vast geological terms.

In the end, it's all very silly and sweet, reminding us not to worry so much. And what an excellent way to pay homage to the French, in these hectic days of hectic reasoning here in the United States. George Orwell, in a massive book of essays published by Everyman, makes an excellent case for French ethics and honor, saying that over there, they have something rather bizarre called Universal Conscription. When France goes to war, even the rich, even the politicians, even the presidents-to-be have to go through a grueling boot camp experience, and then quite possibly to the front lines, along with everybody else. What a good way to protect the poor and working-class from needless death and disfigurement, in that country, if not here.

Vive la France!

Stray Dog Theatre presents The Madwoman of Chaillot at Washington University's A.E. Hotchner studio theatre through August 7th (2005). The cast also includes a simple and honest portrayal by the respected actor Steve Wozniak, lugging around an accordion. Clearly and stylishly directed by Eleanor Schwetye. Gary F. Bell is the producer. For ticket information, call (314) 531-5923.


-- Richard T. Green

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