Framed in a certain way, The Madwoman of Chaillot nearly reads like a news headline. Whether the media outlet is CNN or The Onion depends entirely on what you focus on – because this French satire by Jean Giraudoux blurs the lines between sanity and insanity, real and absurd.
The play, produced by WSC Avant Bard and directed by Artistic Director Emeritus Chistopher Henley, is onstage now at the Gunston Arts Center’s blackbox space in Arlington. And though written in 1943, this work offers several themes that feel entirely topical for today’s audiences. (Katherine Hepburn fans may also remember a 1969 film, which largely shares the plot and themes of the play.)
The story follows Aurelie, a Parisian eccentric determined to retaliate against corrupt and self-interested businessmen—prospectors, business developers, and board members, who are planning to dig up Paris in search of oil that’s rumored to run beneath the streets. To do so, she bands together with other offbeat characters from her neighborhood: a sewer man, a flower girl, a ragpicker, a police officer, and two of her friends who seem even quirkier than Aurelia herself. There’s a mock trial, a phantom dog called Dickey, and a trenchcoated creeper with his, ahem, sausages out.
It’s an interesting play, intellectually, and good fun to entertain the notion of gathering the oil tycoons, fracking advocates, and corporate bigwigs and using the one thing they’ll chase over all else to lure them toward their own demise. It’s not so realistic as to seem as nefarious as this sounds. But then, it’s not so absurd as to occupy another reality entirely. This play is the sort of satire that doesn’t declare its intentions too quickly, although comedic design choices (outlandish costumes and sound cues culled from popular TV shows) offer a bolder statement of where this all might be headed.
It is the madder moments that stand out as especially effective. The scene about betting one of the Sargeant’s buttons and the scene shared between the three local madwomen, which is what you might expect if you’d hired Lewis Carroll to pen Arsenic and Old Lace, are both among the play’s more memorable parts.
As Aurelie, the play’s title “madwoman,” Cam Magee is boisterous and charming. Her fellow madwomen – played by Anne Nottage and Tiffany Garfinkle – are zany and fun to watch as they maneuver through their delusions. Also notable is James Finley’s transformation from hobbling ragpicker to a sleek and articulate corporate defendant during the fictitious basement trial.
THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT
June 4 – 28
Gunston Arts Center
2700 S. Lang Street
2 hours, 40 minutes with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Tickets: PWYC Thursdays and Saturday matinees; $30 – $35 all others
Tickets or call 703 418 4808
Although these specific performances are strong, the ensemble does seem at times overwhelmed by the unwieldy and monologue-laden script. For audiences more accustomed to greater tension, tighter dialogue, and a quicker pace, the play’s two hours and forty minutes don’t feel quite in line with what’s actually there. I like to imagine that Henley and his team chose to remain faithful to the script as written in part because this production marks the U.S. premiere of Laurence Senelick’s translation. Though if you get past the length, the monologues, and a scattering of jokes that haven’t weathered the decades, the message is still powerful: No matter one’s station, everyone can take an active role in creating change in the world.
The Madwoman of Chaillot by Jean Giraudoux . Translation and adaptation: Laurence Senelick . Directed by Christopher Henley . Featuring Cam Magee, Anne Nottage, Tiffany Garfinkle, Christine Hirrel, Daven Ralston, Zach Roberts, James Finley, Jay Hardee, Kim Curtis, Theo Hadjimichael, Joe Palka, Tony Greenburg, Gray West, Jose Martinez, Denise B. Margis . Set and Costume Design: Collin Ranney . Sound Design: Frank DiSalvo . Lighting Design: Christopher Annas-Lee . Movement: Jane Franklin . Produced by WSC Avant Bard . Reviewed by Jennifer Clements.
Note: While Christopher Henley writes for DC Theatre Scene, that did not effect this review.