Imagine visiting a quirky French cafe you’ve had your eye on for awhile. The tables are nicely set, a woman with a lovely voice is strumming on a guitar in the corner, and next to her a man with smiling eyes is playing merrily on an accordion.
Sounds pretty nice, right?
It is, until someone slams the door behind you, locks the door tight, and sets the building on fire. So it is, unfortunately, with Theatre Du Jour’s The Mad, A Fracking Fairytale, playing now at the District of Columbia Arts Center.
As the audience sits down, they’re treated to the musical stylings of Esmerelda (Kathryn Winkler) and Emile (David Berkenbilt). The result is charming, if a little in need of practice, and from Winkler’s voice to Berkenbilt’s bowtie, it works just fine.
Sadly, that’s where things begin to go off-kilter.
The Mad is an adaptation of French dramatist Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot. In Theatre Du Jour’s version, a band of prospectors, wayward investors, and uber-capitalists invade a sleepy French café with one thing on their mind: Oil. And they’ll stop at nothing to get it.
To their delight, there’s plenty of that to go around. The café, Café C’est Si Bon, is owned by local spinster Miss Amelia (Rachel Reed), and it apparently sits on top of a tremendously rich deposit of oil. Of course, to get at it, they’ll need to engage in a drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” while conning the proprietor out of her property in the process.
Miss Amelia is having none of it, and she enlists the help of her staff, her doddering friends, and Peter (Jerry Herbilla), a patsy for the oil men, into her righteous cause.
The modern system for oil exploration is one of the few departures from the 1940’s farce from which “The Mad” is adapted. In the original, the oil barons have come to Paris in search of oil. They intend to drill (presumably vertically), and Miss Amelia plots to do away with them by any means necessary.
The Mad is much the same, with Miss Amelia conspiring to stop the oil men by – what else – luring them into a pit from which they’ll never escape.
The play is all about hyperbole. Our heroine, Miss Amelia, is an overdone eccentric who whips around hunting a long-lost feather boa, her massive wig bouncing as she flits through the cafe. Our villains – from shady businessman Mr. Axelrod (Annetta Dexter Sawyer) to the conniving prospector (Shawn Jain) – aren’t just self-interested. They’re gleefully evil, taking a clear and expressed joy in extorting, bribing, even murdering their way to get their hands on the oil they crave.
The package is a vein of humor just waiting for exploration, but unfortunately the comedy doesn’t come through.
Beats were missed. Timing was off. Jokes fell with a thud, and the occasional bawdy moment came off as grotesque rather than on-point. Sure, there was one quip about a lawyer that landed, the costuming (mostly wigs) were good for a giggle, and the courtroom scene is smart and funny.
THE MAD: A Fracking Fairytale
March 6 – 21
Theatre du Jour
at DC Arts Center
2438 18th Street NW
1 hour, 45 minutes, no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
But short of that, there wasn’t much, and a farce without humor is really just 90 minutes of shouting.
The absence of humor also served to extenuate the over-the-top characters we’re forced to endure. The clearest examples are our cartoonish villains, who wring their hands and laugh maniacally as they set their plot in motion. All they needed was a mustache to twist and we’d have bad-guys tailor-made for Inspector Gadget.
Which leads to the bigger question one has to ask about political theater: Why produce the play at all? To push an agenda? Challenge the audience? To make a point?
On any issue – be it fracking or otherwise– there’s always a way to find nuance and add to the dialogue in a meaningful way. Smart political theater will do that. Heck, if an audience can be made to sympathize with a politically challenging figure like Marie Antoinette, anything’s possible, but an audience member should have a sense of why the thing that they saw was important – or why it’s being revived.
This performance doesn’t answer that question.
Moreover, thanks to some flubbed lines and some strained acting, the result felt more like a dry run than a polished performance ready for opening night.
The Mad: A Fracking Fairytale is light and silly, and will likely tickle someone’s funny bone out there. It just wasn’t mine.
The Mad: A Fracking Fairytale . Adapted and Directed by B. Stanley . Featuring: Rachel Reed, Jerry Herbilla, Annetta Dexter Sawyer, Bettina Stap, Jonathan Frye, Kathryn Winkler, Raffaela Perra O’Neill, Shawn Jain, Casey Leffue, and David Berkenbilt . Produced by Theatre Du Jour . Reviewed by Jon Boughtin.
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