There may be more people on stage than in the audience, but the crowded space in the small Dorie Theatre is alive with ferocious goofiness in The Madwoman of Chaillot. Dated and simplistic as Jean Giraudoux's 1945 tale may be, it still carries the moral force of a great old fable, and the current Industrial Arts production gleefully updates and embroiders it with lots of juicy references to present-day Denver politics.
The stage is already occupied when the viewer enters the theater. The Prospector (Phillip Luna is soooo slimy) sits like a cobra on a tall stool in an outdoor cafe, eyeing audience members as they find seats. His menacing presence frightens away every one of the street people who approach him on stage. But when the President, the Baron and the Broker meet, the Prospector slithers over with a proposition. He has found oil under the city streets of Chaillot, specifically under the little Cafe Du Monde, which is owned by the Countess Aurelia, otherwise known as the Madwoman of Chaillot. The four plot to terrorize the city, take over the cafe and drill for oil.
When all this comes to the attention of the Countess--an eccentric lady who prefers her illusions to the realities around her--she calls upon her three equally mad friends, Madame Constance, Madame Josephine and Mademoiselle Gabrielle, to help her stop the Mammon-serving villains once and for all. The ladies hold a trial in absentia. The graceful, clever Ragpicker takes the role of Defendant and makes a case for the villains. But nothing can save the real defendants from their own guilt. The Madwoman sets a trap out of their own greed and baits it with the promise of black gold.
Toni Brady gives another delicate, bright performance as the Madwoman. She's gifted with a powerful stage presence that illumines her various roles from within, and that otherworldly grace is exactly what Aurelia requires. Keithwayne Brock Johnson invests the elegant Ragpicker with innocent self-confidence and sophisticated humor. Carol Anne Lopez as Gabrielle, Gwen Harris as Josephine and Nancy Thomas as Constance form a kind of wise-women triumvirate that is absolutely charming--especially when they break the fourth wall and climb up into the audience.
Some of the other actors here get a bit too extreme in their enthusiasm. One French accent is particularly inaccurate and silly, and the characterizations at times get so broad that they spill over the top. And yet none of this excess proves embarrassing or out of place, given the exaggerated style of the production, which even manages some comic jabs at Denver International Airport. Somehow, despite a few uneven and overdrawn performances, it all works.
In fact, it is the production's flamboyance that saves it from sermonizing or running the risk of liberal fascism. After all, murder is hardly a civilized way of dealing with polluters. But whether it's viewed as a fable, a joke, or a warning to the eco-scum of the earth, Madwoman still makes its case: that there is a battle to be taken up and won against the greed of the few and the apathy of the many.--Mason
The Madwoman of Chaillot, through June 16 at the new Denver Civic Theatre, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 595-3821.