Several clues inform you that “The Madwoman of Chaillot” takes place in Paris. There is the Eiffel Tower painted on the set. There is the outdoor seating at the café that features so prominently in the first act, as well as the French national flag hanging over the proceedings. But nothing marks the geography in Jean Giradoux’s satire more than the laissez faire antics of a Parisian neighborhood fighting back against corporate entities and political corruption. There is something definitively French about the defiantly joyful and flippant nature with which the community’s oppressors are tossed off, and the actors all rise to the revolutionary occasion, even if the direction and design of this Promethean Theatre Ensemble production hinders their progress.
Countess Aurelia, otherwise known as The Madwoman of Chaillot (Elaine Carlson), lives every day spreading belief in the beauty of the world. It falls to her neighbors to admit to her that greed and violence lurk just around the corner, when The President (Jerry Bloom) of an vaguely purposed company and a Prospector, (Brian Hurst) with a nose seeking oil underneath Paris, devise a plot to drill Paris and destroy her neighborhood. A forthright waitress named Irma (Brenda Wlazlo), the café messenger (Brendan Connelly), the local Sergeant (Brendan Hutt), a host of Aurelia’s society friends (Jennifer Vance, Laura Sturm, and Jamie Bragg), the Ragpicker (also played by Bloom), and Pierre (Xavier Lagunas), a flunky of the Prospector’s, all band together to save their streets.
Giradoux alternates between short bursts of action and long, detailed monologues; this rhythm is hard to realize in performance, but Carlson heads a cast that approaches their speeches with presence, preciseness, and warmth. Carlson stands out as Aurelia, a delicate woman doing her darnedest to bring light into other people’s lives, despite the grief history has dealt her. She sees opportunities in the bits and pieces left in the lost and found, and this empathy comes across especially in her early speech about noticing the wonder of one’s morning routine. Wlazlo is also particularly fine, weaving a speech about declaring one’s love into the fabric of every choice she makes onstage. Bragg excels in organizing a circus trail for the President and the Prospector, and Bloom provides a lot of conviction as he plays the Ragpicker pretending to play the President in the neighborhood’s kangaroo court.
Director John Arthur Lewis draws lovely work from his actors across the board, giving a light touch to this tossed together French Revolution. But his staging hampers the performers’ energy and engagement with one another. For most of the play, Lewis has the actors playing side by side on the same sightline and level, making it hard for the audience to track who we should follow at any given moment. Bits of business for background players distract from larger plot and character moments, and the addition of a higher stage level in the second act obscures actors’ reactions.
The issue may largely be a design problem. Jeremiah Barr’s set takes up a majority of the small Athenaeum space, which becomes a problem when so many characters are onstage at any given time. As I wrote above, the setting is recognizably Paris, but I wonder if a more stripped down approach would have helped move the story along with more clarity and fleet-footedness. The second act calls for the appearance of a basement, so I understand the impulse to transform the stage in a dramatic way. But Giradoux’s words, French and effortless and hilarious, call for a subtler hand.
Still, the actors delight, and good triumphs over evil. Especially right now, the communal raising of voices was reassuring, and felt as American as it did French from where I was sitting in the audience.
Show: “The Madwoman of Chaillot”
Company: Promethean Theatre Ensemble
Venue: Athenaeum Theatre (2936 N Southport Ave)
TEN WORD SUMMARY: There’s something definitively French about the joy of fighting back.
DIE RATING: d8 – “Not Bad, Not Great”