Reviving by reading: The Madowman of Chaillot (Readers’ Ensemble Company Summer Festival 2009)

Reviewed by Rich Grey

The expression “history is written by the winners” can be interpreted for theater productions as “works that are affordable are remembered.” Encores got a hold on countless musicals teetering on the brink of obscurity and gave them life, now the Readers’ Ensemble Company does the same for straight comedies and dramas. This new group dedicates itself to finding and presenting, in de-constructed format, works that are either not done or can’t afford to be done anymore. The latter case fits their second entry in a four-play series – The Madwoman of Chaillot. We’ve all heard of this play, we may have seen it in a university setting, but when was the last time you saw a 24-character play performed on, or directly off, Broadway?

Director J. Michaels gave himself every obstacle in this Jean Giraudoux surreal comedy written as a response to World War II. A staged reading is tricky – daunting when done by two-dozen actors. He added performance elements (a dancing deaf mute, masque work – albeit very simple, and touches of modernization like a Spanish-speaking flower seller and a yuppie stock broker). His gamble paid off as the evening yielded a fine show.

The play opens in cartoon fashion with a President, Baron, Broker, and Prospector (Nick Fondulis, M. Alan Haley, John Stillwaggon, and Michaels himself, respectfully) gleefully chatting about their wealth, how to get more, and the middle and lower classes whom they disdain. Fondulis supplies us with an excellent mixture of mustache twirling villainy while keeping things real enough to make us think of every bank president across the country today, he is complimented by Haley’s confused aesthete of a baron, willing to sell his name to make money. The electricity was turned-up tenfold by Stillwaggon’s high-speed banter and game show host smile as the broker. J. Michaels added to the humor as a humorless old hermit prospector, deadpanning around the three corporate stooges.

They are greeted by the titular character, Countess Aurelia, the Madwoman of Chaillot. The casting choice was spot-on with Sheila Mart. Ms. Mart’s majestic presence in a tiny frame epitomized the character. Her staccato delivery fooled the audience by alternating between doddering and ingenuous. This allowed us to follow her down her rabbit hole (literally) to the play’s surreal conclusion.

There are also lovers (of course). The innocent, not-from-these-parts, Irma (played by Brianna Carlson-Goodman) and the repentant juvenile Pierre (Jim deProphetis). Carlson-Goodman and deProphetis played off of each other well, sharing innocence and pain, love and loss. Carlson-Goodman’s Act I monologue was a refreshing moment of clarity, while deProphetis’ scenes with Aurelia were charming and engrossing.

The financial wizards are forced to do battle with a cacophony of tradesmen and vagrants including a sassy waitress (played with great vigor by Sara Minisquero), a Latina flower seller (played in Spanish by Jessica Real-Mohr, whose gestures allowed even the most dense to understand her dialog), a lunatic foot doctor (Tracy Lipson doing her best impression of a 3 a.m. infomercial), two wacky policemen (Josh Silverman, hilarious as a new cop on the beat, and John Payne, truly funny and commanding as an old-fashioned beat cop complete with brogue) all led by an urban Ragpicker, played by Lorenzo Valoy. Valoy’s high energy and inventive delivery as the bearer of bad news in Act I and fire and brimstone channeling of all the evil of the world in Act II were high-points of the evening.

Act II brings a group of new characters. A sewer man (played with surreal joy by Robert Saunders) who thinks he’s a stand-up comic; three other madwomen: Constance (Dana A. Iannuzzi), whose choice of puppet dog over invisible dog – how it is normally played – was inspired; Gabrielle (Carla Kelly), an innocent chanteuse with an overactive libido, whose facial expressions and strange noises were a source of great humor, and the commanding Josephine (queenly played by Theresa Chow). Chow manages to make some of the play’s most absurd dialog sound totally logical.

Wide-eyed, tattered, and diminutive, teenager Adele Wendt – a trained ballerina – danced her lines (another inspired touch) as the deaf mute, adding a new dimension to this reading. Her frenetic “conversations” with Irma were a witty diversion and her Act I “ballet” (choreographed by Joyce A. Adams) became the play’s parable – the smallest flower can have the deepest soul.

Producers Dana A. Iannuzzi and Justin Flagg are to be commended for making possible a series that includes a rare George Bernard Shaw one-act (last week’s Press Cuttings), a Russian work made famous by Lon Chaney (next week’s He Who Gets Slapped) and rising star Lynn Nottage’s African-American drama, Intimate Apparel, which closes the festival. The small, warm theater chosen for the presentations might be an indication of an austere budget – a fitting parable as to why certain plays are allowed to vanish.

The festival is at University of the Streets on East 7th Street.

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