The Madwoman of Chaillot
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., Nov. 17, 2000
The Madwoman of Chaillot: A Pleasant, Ghostly Dance
B. Iden Payne Theatre,
Through November 19
Running Time: 2 hrs, 35 min
There is a gentle and good-natured undercurrent to the serious messages in Jean Giradoux's final play. Written during the Nazi occupation of France, The Madwoman of Chaillot seems to be about one crazy old lady's efforts to stop overbearing corporate powers from turning Paris into an oil field once black gold has been discovered under the cobblestones of the City of Light. But the play is really about battling conformity and greed, about honor and doing the right thing. And it is about love. This is the work of a playwright who sits beside his muse: It is a lovely, lyrical piece of theatre. For every social imperative, there follows a coda where the heart of the matter is: the heart. So while the oil-sniffing Prospector and the gleeful President make their diabolical plans, the waitress, Irma, falls in love with one of the bad guys' newly reformed lackeys, Pierre. When the Madwoman plots her counter-offensive, she falls into a reverie about a lost love and, with Pierre's help, is able to communicate with that love. The play is frequented by lost loved ones and newfound amours, a pleasant, ghostly dance infusing the play with grace and comedy. And throughout is Giradoux's belief in the people of Paris, who bear the brunt of suffering but rise above their strife to preserve their precious city -- prescience from a playwright who would not live to see the Liberation.
Giradoux's gentle prodding is reflected perfectly in the amiable and astute direction of Gordon Peacock, who has steered his enormous young cast in this UT Department of Theatre & Dance production to be more than the generic character types they play. Giradoux may have penned a farce -- or perhaps fantasy is the better word -- but each of the types who inhabit this offbeat part of Paris (are there any parts that are on-beat?) brings something warm and resonant to Peacock's image of life at a Parisian street cafe and the bowels of the Madwoman's townhouse (well-designed by Cliff Simon). There are the Waiter, the Street Singer, the Shoelace Peddler, the Sewer-man, the Deaf-Mute, and so on: Each ensemble member succeeds in capturing something of the aura of that boulevard scene, creating lively layers to what could be just a two-dimensional street sketch. As the Prospector and the President, Jordan T. Maxwell and Caleb Stewart are loud and abrasive (and dangerous) intruders. Their partner in corporate crime, the Baron, receives a Hapsburgian haughtiness from actor Siavash Vaseghi. Irma is played with equal parts defiance and vulnerability by Simcha Todd, and reformed Pierre is given a stout heart by Nick Walker.
Of course, all the players are there to support the title character, the eccentric Madwoman, played -- or maybe reveled in -- by Pamela Christian. Garish, flamboyant, ebullient, Christian's Madwoman is also a pacifist, a lover, an observer of the human species; but underneath that charming naïveté lurks something of a keen, liberal mastermind. The role is a tour de force, and Christian makes the most of it, aided by a playwright who leaves no stone unturned, no plot point unfinished. Although this tends to make the play feel a bit long, when it reaches its happy ending -- a fantasy finish where the world's evils are dispatched forever -- it is rather sad to see such a brilliant, hopeful character like the Madwoman depart the stage.