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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 29, 2000. All rights reserved.

Review: `Madwoman of Chaillot’

E-mail: JackFlorek@princetoninfo.com

Westwind Repertory Company is currently in its fifth

season, and in that time it has been the source of some of the more

interesting theatrical experiences in the area. Having previously

featured works by such high profile dramatists as Shakespeare and

Moliere, Westwind now turns its sights on the somewhat less famous

Jean Giraudoux and his 1943 comedy "The Madwoman of Chaillot."

Written in Paris during the time of the German occupation, "The

Madwoman of Chaillot" places high emphasis on witty dialogue,

nonsensical situations, and an over-the-top style. In fact, with its

playful tone and bold reality twists, it may remind many of the Marx

Brothers or Lewis Carroll’s "Alice in Wonderland." Set in

Paris between the two world wars, it is the story of an eccentric

proprietress of a bustling cafe named Countess Aurelia, who, with

the help of her ragamuffin friends, fends off the arrogant intrusions

of a pack of greedy businessmen. Believing they taste a touch of petroleum

in the cafe’s drinking water, the businessmen attempt to swindle the

countess of her livelihood for access to what they believe is a proverbial

ocean of oil below.

Giraudoux is considered by some to be a kind of pre-feminist, and

there is a liberal helping of potshots taken at the male sex’s penchant

for feeding the war machine while still managing to rake in a tidy

profit. Branding these greedy scavengers as "pimps," Giraudoux

also places great faith in the healing powers of women. Countess Aurelia,

despite being dismissed as a crazy old woman, is able to toss a monkey

wrench or two into this war machine, and do it in the space of a single

afternoon.

There are 28 cast members in this production and often the stage is

occupied by nearly all of them. But Julia Ohm’s fluid direction never

allows things to seem cluttered or stagnant. From the very first moment,

the play swirls with a kind of energetic humanity. Street musicians

and waiters appear, do their job, and disappear. A flower girl, a

ragpicker, a shoelace peddler all move through the stage with a kind

of natural grace. A street juggler pops colored balls into the air,

attracting a crowd, while businessmen tell their obsessive stories

of profits going "up, up, up" or "down, down, down."

While tightly choreographed, this stage movement never appears forced

or unnatural. Each character seems to have their rightfully earned

moment in the spotlight, before moving on to other things.

Georgine Hall as Countess Aurelia is perfectly suited as the so-called

madwoman, playing her part with a kind of whimsical vulnerability

set on a foundation of rock solid strength. A veteran of Broadway

and film, Hall carries the burden of believability exceptionally well.

In such a high-stakes role, the audience must buy into her character.

If she fails, then so does the performance. She succeeds in every

way.

In fact, there are four madwomen in "The Madwoman of Chaillot."

The most magical scene in the entire play is at the beginning of the

second act. Cynthia Lake, Molly Sheffield, and June Connerton as Mme.

Constance, Mlle. Gabrielle, and Mme. Josephine join the Countess in

the cafe’s basement and concoct a plan to thwart the businessmen,

all the while trading barbs and insults. The theatrical chemistry

between all four actresses makes this scene a real gem in an already

fine performance. Don’t let anyone fool you, theatrical magic is a

rare thing. This scene is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Mark Moede’s Ragpicker begins the play as a kind of menacing presence,

but slowly transforms into an endearing ally to the Countess. He seems

to sense the requirements of his character and more than ably fulfills

them without overstepping. Claire Shannon and Jonathan Knapp are nicely

matched as the young couple.

There is barely a false note in the entire production. Of special

note is Ed Statts as the Policeman and Curtis Kane as the Sergeant.

Both are small roles, but both are performed with care to detail,

bringing a unique kind of gentle bumbling openness to their characters.

Of course, an argument could be made that Evelyn Knuppel’s costume

designs are the real star of the show. They are beautiful, functional,

and suit the quirkiness of the show extremely well.

"The Madwoman of Chaillot" is a wonderful play, filled with

a strong sense of the playful, the paradoxical, and the downright

quirky. Although not widely known, Jean Giraudoux is considered by

many to be one of the greatest French dramatists of the 20th century.

And Maurice Valency’s translation is audience friendly while still

retaining the flavor of the original French.

"The Madwoman of Chaillot" is a delightful experience from

one of the best theatrical companies in the area.

— Jack Florek

The Madwoman of Chaillot, Westwind Repertory, Hun

School, Edgerstoune Road, 609-406-8848. Jean Giraudoux’s comic fable,

directed by Julia Ohm. Continues Friday and Saturday, March 31 and

April 1. $15; $10 students and seniors.


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