Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Ok, I’ll admit I wasn’t looking forward to this one. An evening-length play billed as a study of women’s-movement icon Simone de Beauvoir in light of the evolution of feminist theory, her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, and changing philosophical fads? In a black-box theater? Sounds pretty grim.
Actually, Shooting Simone, the first production of the recently reconstituted Theatre Conspiracy, turned out to be—of all things—funny. Not boisterously funny, though there are a few laugh-out-loud moments, but winsome and ironic and ruefully conscious of the humanity of its characters, who could all too easily have been caricatures instead. Despite its title, which refers to film, not firearms, Shooting Simone isn’t particularly radical. Nor, thank God, is it unduly reverent, and what it lacks in substance it makes up for with agreeable wit and entertaining banter.
Granted, the first few moments aren’t promising. Sound designer Mark Anduss picked “La Vie en Rose” to evoke prewar Paris, but it wasn’t written until 1946, and it’s also a trifle obvious. (Poulenc might have been better, or maybe Satie; the latter gets a sidelong mention later on, and his music is easily as atmospheric.) And after the lights go down, playwright Lynne Kaufman opens the proceedings with a snippet of the most intense scene from Sartre’s blistering No Exit—the scene that contains the famous line about how “hell is other people.” In the right hands, that passage can be caustic, but taken out of context like this it’s just campy, and it sends an odd signal besides: Kaufman seems to be hinting that the coming narrative will concern three people who torment each other, but it doesn’t turn out that way at all.
Instead, her three subjects—de Beauvoir, Sartre, and de Beauvoir’s “country cousin” Olga—turn out to be more or less essential to each other. When Olga (Christine Hirrel) arrives from Rouen, she finds Sartre (David Elias) in peak form and de Beauvoir (Brook Butterworth) in a bit of a funk. De Beauvoir is working on a novel, but the characters aren’t coming alive; Sartre is gleefully trashing Freud’s notions about the subconscious in an essay that de Beauvoir dutifully types and edits for him. They spend afternoons schmoozing with peers at cafes (“Camus said the crayfish is excellent”) and pondering the big and not-so-big questions (they analyze Sartre’s preference for artifice and reason over nature and impulse, as manifest in his aversion to fruit and his fondness for sausage). Butterworth has a convincingly brisk way with de Beauvoir’s dialogue and a kind of deadpan flair that underscores the humor in Kaufman’s script. But Elias, though he’s reasonably engaging, doesn’t make a sufficiently charismatic Sartre; it’s hard to believe de Beauvoir’s devotion.
When Olga breezes in, all red pumps and youthful exuberance, she’s horrified to learn that these Parisian sophisticates spend all their time writing and talking. “What do you do for fun?” she asks when she learns they’ve never been to the zoo. “Think,” responds de Beauvoir, without missing a beat. (That’s just one of the interesting ironies here; Kaufman’s de Beauvoir speaks in tart, clipped sentences that bear no resemblance to the endless windy poetry of The Second Sex. It helps make her real.) Olga, of course, turns out to be an out-and-out hedonist, self-centered and shallow: “Books aren’t life,” she sniffs when de Beauvoir suggests she read up on Sartre’s work. “Books are instead of life.”
“We write books,” de Beauvoir notes pointedly, and indeed Olga’s outlook is decidedly at odds with de Beauvoir and Sartre’s cerebral lifestyle. Gradually, though, her sensuousness and vitality seduces them both. (Hirrel succeeds in this role not because of any particular dramatic genius but because of an uncanny and consciously exploited resemblance—it resides in her cheekbones and in the way she says hurtful things through a brilliant smile—to Kathleen Turner at her most predatory.) The ensuing three-sided affair liberates de Beauvoir and sets Sartre on edge, disrupting the balance of power in their relationship and restoring that essential creative tension. The direct result is some of their best work: No Exit and de Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay.
Forty years later, Olga is dead and Sartre is incontinent. An American filmmaker, brimming with feminist fire and self-righteous indignation (Hirrel again, more relaxed and confident here), arrives to confront de Beauvoir about contradictions between her philosophical writings and new revelations published in Olga’s memoirs about the way she has lived as devoted companion to Sartre. “No one lives a philosophy,” de Beauvoir says witheringly. “It’s hard enough to write it.” And later: “Perhaps I didn’t discover the New World, but I drew a map….Once you get there you can correct it.”
Meanwhile, the interviewer’s cameraman/lover (endearing Christopher Walker), who has departed after a fight, commiserates with Sartre: The man who has kept company for decades with one of womankind’s most prominent champions observes, “Women are funny. You step on their toes, they cut off your balls.” After token resistance, the filmmaker accepts that de Beauvoir is neither infallible nor contemptible, that this once implacable advocate of radical change has both mellowed and accepted compromise. Sartre gives the cameraman the scoop about their affair with Olga, and in short order there’s a reconciliation, a death, and a film premiere.
There’s not much to say about the production; it’s a spare thing, with impressionist renderings of a Paris cafe for a backdrop. Jennifer Ambrosino’s direction, like Ben Hay’s lighting, is either minimal or so subtle it’s unnoticeable (I suspect the former); the set is a table and three chairs that frequently—perhaps more frequently than necessary—get rearranged between scenes.
Shooting Simone isn’t stunning—Kaufman’s sentimental take on her heroine’s life is a little saccharine and old-fashioned—but it’s deliciously glib, a facile new-age/New Feminist homage to a perplexing figure who may or may not have been the woman Kaufman portrays. It offers no revelations, only reminders: that all of us have our weaknesses, and that every idol has feet of clay. It’s entertaining without being exciting, occasionally thought-provoking without ever crossing the line that would make it genuinely stimulating. If that’s not everything we deserve from theater, it’s more than we frequently get.CP