Nothing quite prepares you for a Marguerite Duras play, so rarely is she done on this side of the Atlantic. As delicate as lace, as ephemeral as the foam on the waves that provide the aural landscape of Savannah Bay, as multi-layered as a Viennese torte and as playfully sweet as such a confection, and as spare and profound as a poem by Emily Dickinson. So when the John F. Kennedy Center brought Théâtre de l’Atelier in its U.S. premiere of the work to be part of the World Stages Festival, the Family Theatre on opening night was understandably packed and audiences expectant.
The immediate statement was made by the set, a seamless, stark white box, designed by Jean Haas, with one small platform of planks suggesting a small pier. This provided the perfect tabula rasa to bring focus to the two actors and allow for the multiple, shifting realities of the play. At the start an older woman in black sits on the edge of the pier and stares out at the water. She seems shrouded in misery. We are given time to take in the waves as she hears them, the sense of years passing, and her great loss.
A young woman enters and opens the shutters of a window on the stage left side. It’s morning and she’s brought breakfast on a tray for the older woman. It is a quotidian event and symbolically she comes to shed light on this woman’s secrets and their shared story. Abruptly, light pours in from that side of the stage and falls starkly in a rectangle across the floor like a Hopper painting. (He too caught people frozen in time and their own solitude.)
As the women begin to speak, it was with such a sense of intimacy, they do not so much project theatrically but reel us in to their murmurings which rise and fall like a piece of impressionistic music, Satie perhaps. The older woman in particular struggles to find words and identify meaning. Is she succumbing to dementia or is she a consummate actress, shaping syllables musically like drops of water falling into a larger body of water and causing ripples of sound to linger?
At one point the younger woman walks stage right and opens rather magically a panel of the wall on which sit rows of identical jars of jam. She brings one back and spreads it on a breakfast roll, and the older woman encourages her to spread more then spends the rest of the scene licking her fingers, lingering as she tries to hang on to the last essence of sweetness. Such tiny moments and symbolic movements are what made the play excel and mesmerize.
The two actresses Geneviève Mnich and Anne Consigny are remarkable in their transparency and truthfulness. Mnich must receive a special mention as she has stepped into the role when Emmanuelle Riva had to withdraw for medical reasons. This was her first performance. She and Consigny partner each other beautifully.
Mostly the two actresses deliver their lines straight out as if to the water. They never “do things” to grab our attention or change the pace. But little by little they begin to excavate memories that they shared of a single figure whose suicide and watery death had so deeply and indelibly shaped their lives. But as the show continues one begins to wonder: was the story even true?
Closes March 22, 2014
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
1 hour, 10 minutes with no intermission
Thursday thru Saturday
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At the center of the play, the two women share the telling of a story. It is a romantic tragedy of two lovers that feels part journalistic and part mythic. A woman who has just given birth goes swimming in a black maillot swimsuit far, far out in the bay. A man follows her. Was it once or many times, for we hear she did come back, but finally, on one occasion, she kept on swimming exhausted but perhaps like a silkie creature from folk mythology, coaxing him to her watery element. The man follows her, and they die in a lover’s pact. Perhaps.
I found myself deeply moved by the story and also by the recurring theme of the “great love.” Contemporary American works either approach romance as a Hollywood pastiche or treat romantic love with cynicism and irony. Here the two actresses seem suffused with the unabashed pouring out of the “greatest love.” The object of desire seems to shift from the woman whom they have both lost to each other.
This is a work that demands attentiveness, but, if you accept its invitation, offers an evocative evening of theatre, full of silence and emotional beauty. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” wrote Emily Dickinson. And so it does.
Savannah Bay by Marguerite Duras . Directed by Didier Bezace . Featuring Geneviève Mnich and Anne Consigny . Produced by Théâtre de l’Atelier at The Kennedy Center as part of the World Stages Festival at the Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
The World Stages International Festival continues at The Kennedy Center through March 30, 2014. Details and tickets.
Running time: 70 minutes without an intermission.