What do oil barons and the mentally insane have in common? Everything, according to “The Madwoman of Chaillot.”
“Madwoman” is a theatrical production by French playwright Jean Giraudoux. It originally premiered in 1945 and became a staple of French theatre.
The U.S. has tried to adapt the work before, but it is the new translation by Laurence Senelick that’s now showing at UT’s own Clarence Brown Theatre.
“Madwoman” is set in Paris, where residents of the Chaillot district live a blissful life of poetry and slight madness. Unfortunately, that is threatened when maniacal oil barons and war profiteers hatch a scheme to tear up the city to find petroleum.
However, one person stands in their way: the wealthy, passionate, beloved and mentally unstable Countess Aurelia, also known as The Madwoman of Chaillot.
Something to note is how the countess’ instability represents the rest of the play.
But first, some positives.
When the curtain was raised and revealed the set, my jaw dropped to the floor. I’ve never seen a set make such great use of stage space. Wood and plaster buildings are painted so well that light reflects like real stone. A bland backdrop is replaced by subtly moving images that make you feel you’re really sitting on the Parisian streets.
It takes full advantage of all three dimensions, without sacrificing the gleeful fauxness. This is aided by top-notch lighting.
The second act set was just as impressive as the first, and the same effort clearly went into the costumes.
Cast wise, the entire ensemble was a treat. Where some background actors are content to sit around and pretend to talk for three hours, “Madwoman” makes every extra feel as alive as a speaking role. Looking at random actors in this show is like finding hidden stories with a story, and it was the best part of the show for me.
Carol Mayo Jenkins’ performance as Countess Aurelia also deserves special mention. She is the heart of the show and truly nails the role as the passionate and eccentric Madwoman.
It’s such a shame that all these superb actors and beautiful production values are wasted on this show.
Though not bad by any means, “Madwoman” was the most boring play I’ve seen since watching random, small-town community theatre.
It’s all in the pacing and script.
The pacing feels like a car with no brakes that is simultaneously being held back by a forklift. It can’t go any faster, but it still won’t stop for anything.
I say “any faster,” but it’s all slow. Every scene moves at the same speed for the entirety of the show, and it sucks the emotional weight out of every piece of dialogue.
None of this is saved by the script. The first lines are exposition, as expected of any sort of story-based medium, but the exposition goes on for thirty minutes. The Madwomen starts spouting nothing but gibberish, the main storyline doesn’t get introduced until the end of the first act and only then do you realize that this is what you signed up for.
The plot description above might as well also be the description for the second act, because the characters get distracted every five minutes and forget that a story needs to happen.
The worst part about the script was also, ironically, one of its greatest strengths. Its portrayal of innocent madness is brilliant in the way random, nonsensical gibberish is spoken with the same seriousness as regular dialogue. But the gibberish is the main feature of the script. Most of the script is literal nonsense.
But again, the show’s not bad. The actors do great with what they’re given. Each one delivers their lines with expertise, and the whole cast has some of the most impressive facial and body language I’ve seen from Clarence Brown. I can’t wait to see all these amazing actors in something that lets them show their clout.
But when we’re thirty to forty minutes in and we still haven’t met the main character, something’s gone wrong. I wanted to like “Madwoman” from the moment the curtain rose, but it just didn’t work.