The Denver Center Theatre Company is presenting a version of The Madwoman of Chaillot, updated as simply The Madwoman and set in contemporary New York rather than Paris. The play was written by an ailing Jean Giraudoux during World War II and was first released in 1945, after his death. It's interesting that the story's themes not only remain relevant, but are at present more relevant than they've been for decades. A gently ironic fairytale with underpinnings of real anger and sadness, Madwoman tells the story of the near destruction of a great city by greedy contractors seeking the oil under the sidewalks. These men -- in this production, a senator, a CEO, a stockbroker and a geological engineer -- are thwarted by the Madwoman, Countess Aurelia. But Aurelia has her own regrets, and these, too, are resolved before the end of the evening through the gentle agency of new young love.
As the play begins, a troupe of the poor, homeless and marginally employed swirl around the moneymen seated at a Tribeca cafe table, attempting to thwart their machinations. Director Israel Hicks has done a fine job of updating the milieu, and Giraudoux's traditional street figures -- Rag Picker, Flower Vendor, Deaf Mute, Street Singer -- find new life on New York's streets, joined by a bicycle messenger and a breakdancer. Enter Aurelia, played by Kathleen M. Brady, with her fading and selective memory, passion for life and steely determination, emblematic, in some ways, of the city itself.
Occasionally, the whole thing does seem a little fey, a little precious, but the language has such charm and unexpectedness, so many odd curls of poetry and such delightful twists of illogical logic that ultimately, the enterprise soars. (Hicks uses the Maurice Valery translation, adding some contemporary references -- for instance, weapons of mass destruction and The Da Vinci Code.) Finally, the play is an assertion of the power of imagination over reality, the politically weak against the strong, and the forces of life against those of death.
Some of the text's simplifications did give me pause: Aurelia's insistence that it's okay to kill evil people is uncomfortably reminiscent of the political rhetoric we're hearing so much of these days. It's always true that the first step toward losing one's own humanity is to dehumanize others. Then again, there's something so pleasant and right about the idea that all the evils of greed, war and destruction can be made to disappear through a simple assertion of collective will.
There's a telling scene in the second act when Aurelia and her supporters stage a trial before carrying out their plan. The Rag Picker -- played with strength and feeling by Keith Hatten -- is chosen to stand in for the moneymen. Hesitant at first, he eventually immerses himself in the role. Hatten seems to grow physically, attaining giant size as he limns the inexorable connection between greed and war and extols the seductive power of wealth. As he speaks, his listeners lose their certainty. Until, that is, they recover and sentence the Rag Picker -- or rather, those he represents -- to death.
Some of Hicks's updating of the material and the exhortations to fight for what's right seem a bit heavy-handed, and there are also moments that verge on sentimentality. But overall, this is a rich, vivid and satisfying production. The affair between Peter and Irma, the waitress, is handled with beautiful simplicity by Rachel Duvall and Christopher Kelly. Mark Rubald gives perhaps the most delightful performance of his career, combining a jaunty workingman's swagger with his natural gentility and bringing an unforced playfulness to the role of the Sewer Man.
What a joy to see almost all of the finest members of the Denver Center Theatre Company working together, some in small roles, some in slightly larger ones (there's really only one starring part, that of Aurelia herself), and enlivening every corner of the stage. In the past, we've often witnessed the company's excellent black actors confined to tiny roles or the annual August Wilson play. But here is Michael Cherrie bringing his Caribbean lilt to the role of the Waiter, Charles Weldon as the irrepressible Street Singer, Harvy Blanks in a small, comic turn as a cop and the powerful Terrence Riggins, silenced by his role as Deaf Mute but communicating a world of thought and feeling through his body. And -- in a terrific bit of business -- Laurence A. Curry breakdances through a long speech about investment, his controlled and expressive movements mocking the speaker.
Randy Moore, John Hutton, Jamie Horton and Bill Christ bring crisp, comic authority to their villainous roles. Elizabeth Rainer exudes nastiness as a high-class, money-grubbing woman of the night. (Giraudoux's ambivalence about women is very evident in Madwoman, where the female principle both affirms life -- as embodied by Irma and the three madwomen -- and, in the shape of a group of whores, encourages destruction.)
Giraudoux struggled to reconcile French rationalism with a German Romanticism that makes all of us the shapers of our own worlds, and there's one scene where this is most explicit: the conference between Aurelia and her sisters. These women inhabit a world where the dead mingle with the living and -- as Aurelia eventually explains -- fake pearls become real when people wear them. Kim Staunton, clad in a dress trimmed with canary feathers, is terrific as the dim-witted but dauntless Gabrielle, and Robin Moseley is equally impressive playing the quiveringly emotional Constance. And, oh, how everything zings into focus when Annette Helde spins on in her electrified wheelchair and starts giving orders in a heavy German accent. In the center of all the action stands Kathleen Brady, exuding kindly certainty like the royalty she is.
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