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At first glance, The Madwoman of Chaillot looks pretty good for her age. Seen through Daniel Conway’s eyes, she’s a riot of color and curvesmore of the former than pure good taste might permit, in fact, and more of the latter than you’ll find anywhere this side of the Smithsonian’s new art nouveau exhibit.
Too bad the rest of Olney Theatre’s production isn’t as satisfying as the spectacular copper stair that curls gracefully around itself at the center of Conway’s set. But Jim Petosa’s staging takes the direct and respectful approach, and the quirky humor that should fuel Jean Giradoux’s proto-environmentalist oddity gets stifled under all the seriousness and reverence.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Madwoman must have blown the roof off the playhouse in 1945, when its anti-capitalist broadsides would’ve resonated with a Parisian audience still smoldering with resentment for the profiteers who’d raped them during the war and the rapacious industrialists (paging Herr Krupp) who’d helped drive Europe headlong into it.
And let’s agree, for whatever it’s worth, that the strenuous whimsy that informs every sceneevery exchange, evenmight still have a certain appeal among the street-theater aficionados who gathered in Washington not long ago to welcome the worthies attending the World Bank and IMF’s April conclave. This is a play, after all, in which a street singer, a rag-picker, and a crazy woman conspire to lock all the world’s oilmen (along with a good chunk of its lawyers and journalists) in a cellar and leave them to die.
Giradoux opens things at a sidewalk cafe in Chaillot, a Paris neighborhood not too far from the Eiffel Tower, where the regular crowd includes a couple of streetwalkers (Lara Rubin and Natalie Roots), a raving quack of a German physician (Paul MacWhorter), and a street singer (Judith Robedeau-Day) who can’t remember more than a phrase of her signature tune, not to mention the odd shoelace peddler (Patrick Bussink), flower girl (Bina K. Malhotra), and Deaf-Mute (Tracy Oliveraand it’s her character name, not a description; Giradoux may have been politically progressive, but he was hardly politically correct). Senior among them is the rag-picker (Alan Wade), equal parts father figure, spokesperson, and grease-stained doomsayer.
Into the middle of this motley lot strolls the President (David Marks, doing a sort of silent-movie Ugly American thing, only with dialogue). A robber baron of the moustache-twirling order, he brings with him an impoverished French aristocrat (bland Joseph Pindelski), an unscrupulous margin-trading stockbroker (Jesse Terrill), and eventually a prospector (Michael W. Howell)all his cohorts in a scheme to raze Paris in search of the oil they somehow believe lurks below its foundations. They’re peremptory with the waiter (Devron T. Young), so you know right away they’re the bad guys, and Marks eventually does violence to more than one of the flower girl’s gladiolas, but Giradoux insists on driving the message home with a speech he gives the President about “the impenetrable barrier” between paragons like himself and the “insolent, disrespectful, and independent” unwashed. By the time Marks finishes delivering it, you’ll have figured out how the play must end; unfortunately, Giradoux hasn’t even brought the titular madwoman, Countess Aurelia (Halo Wimes), onstage yet, and once she arrives, he feels compelled to abandon the main story for a while so he can establish her eccentricity with an overlong routine involving a missing feather boa and a variety of barnyard noises.
This, I regret to report, is not especially funny, in part because Wines’ many and various talents do not include a convincing rooster imitation (though her miaou later in the play proves respectably feline). Imposing, certainly, in the tattered trappings of the ancien regime, the star nonetheless gives a performance that feels strangely ethereal; whether it’s her take on Countess Aurelia’s distraction or something else, there’s a disconnected, almost enervated feel, a lack of energy that makes it hard to believeor carethat the fate of civilization is in this woman’s hands.
Indeed, Terrill adds more life to the evening with a two-minute riff on a day at the Bourse than all of the Madwoman’s oddball utterances can contribute; that early spark comes courtesy of an acrobatically funny, unapologetically physical performance that cuts against the almost liturgical reserve of Petosa’s direction. Wade breaks free for a bit, too, in a second-act scene that puts the rag-picker on trial as a stand-in for the world’s profit-mongers; again, it’s the speed and the snap and the vibrant anger he brings to the sequence that infuse Giradoux’s over-the-top images with the poweralmostto persuade.
Elsewhere, Petosa’s decidedly uneven cast approaches the play’s almost surreal excesses with the earnestness and gravity most locals reserve for policy debates. It’s understandable: They know, if only from reading Petosa’s director’s note, that Giradoux’s power-to-the-little-people idealism could have a kind of resonance in the era of ExxonMobil and BP Amoco, to say nothing of the time of AOL Time Warner.
What they don’t seem to knowwhat the entire production’s wholehearted seriousness seems to overlookis how naive and futile that brand of idealism appears now, to the jaded eye of the postmodern public. There are probably ways to make Madwoman speak in language that could move that audience; at Olney, though, she sounds like an awfully old-fashioned sort of frump. She’s curious to look at, yes, but in conversation she’s not quite the charming eccentric her reputation suggests. CP