|Dickens, adapted by Mike Poulton: A Tale of Two Cities, directed by Geoff Elliott & Julia Rodriguez-Elliott
Giraudoux, tr. by Maurice Valency: The Madwoman of Chaillot, directed by Stephanie Shroyer
Shaw: Mrs. Warren's Profession, directed by Michael Michetti
Seen in Pasadena at A Noise Within, Oct. 19-22, 2017
The repertory tends to the classical, including classical 20th-century theater. You don't subscribe to this company to see new plays. There's a Shakespeare play nearly every year; there's usually a French play (in translation, of course); there's a survey of the significant American repertory. We like to visit Pasadena for four days, fall and spring, when we manage to catch three plays. (And catch up on botanical gardens, favorite restaurants, and old friends.)
Lately the seasons have illustrated themes of one kind or another: this year, social revolution. It's in the air. I've written here before of my theory that theater was born with a social responsibility: in early societies, it was through public performance that social problems — ethical, moral, religious, political — were pondered. Theater offers a unique merging of intensely personal and intrinsically public introspection and expression, and the rituals theater has evolved over the years offer a kind of adjustment, a tuning, an alignment of turbulent events with the human norms needed for stable social life, whether on the small scale (couples, families) or the large.
IT IS SIXTY YEARS and more since I read Charles Dickens's novel A Tale of Two Cities as a required text in the ninth grade, and I thought I remembered of it only the opening and closing lines and the description of Mme Lafarge knitting as the tumbrels go rumbling by. Watching this adaptation, however, brought the characters, the situation, even the dialogue out of some long-closed chamber into active memory. The play is compressed, of course; parallel sub-plots and minor characters are gone — two acts across two and a half hours, on a relatively bare stage, can only accommodate so much. But the result is, as I've suggested, epic theater: it was impossible to attend to it without thinking of Bertolt Brecht. Who knew Dickens was a forerunner? (Probably lots of graduate students.)
Dickens's plot rests on the possibly confused identities of two men, a young French nobleman whose ideals and empathy lead him to renounce his title and a similarly young English barrister utterly devoid of moral discipline yet dedicated, ultimately, to similar humane ideals. They are human counterparts of the "two cities," London and Paris; and Dickens's larger purpose is, through narrating their individual human predicaments, to investigate the commonalities of privileged and tradition-bound English legal society and resentful and erupting French rebellion against a thousand years of monarchy.
I was surprised — still am, a week later — at how detailed, profound, and often subtle this undertaking was: the novel, the adaptation, the production, the performance. This in not unusual: these theater trips to Pasadena usually leave me mulling over the productions for days afterward; it's one of the rewards of the visit. But, perhaps because I was expecting Dickens to exaggerate sentiment at the cost of insight, I was particularly impressed with the evening. I won't detail the cast and crew; I haven't the program at hand; you can always find the credits at the company's fine website. Everything about this production was strong and affecting.
Into this charming world enter a group of Important Men — a miner, a chief executive, an investor; that sort of crew. They are convinced there's oil under the Paris streets, precisely here at this corner, and they plan enthusiastically to drill for it, to install derricks partout, with no regard at all for the charm of the place, so necessary to pleasant, stable everyday life.
The play centers on la Folle — "madwoman" seems not quite the right translation — who confronts the threat, organizing les habitants du quartier (and two other equally dotty crazy-ladies) to send the capitalists packing. (One of the subtexts of the play, of course, is that they may themselves be victims of their own confidence games.)
Chaillot is sentimental and frothy, and its Paris is not that of 1789. The social protest it describes is far from the stormers of the Bastille. Its resonance with the environmental politics of our own time, however, is inescapable. In the context of the two plays flanking it one sees this thin upper crust of capitalist investors for what they are, a threat to social order ultimately able to achieve a new aristocracy, oppressing ordinary men and women and spoiling the world to satisfy nothing more important than their own insatiable greed.
Again, cast, crew, production were all exemplary. Even the musical cues were impertinently effective, in my opinion, and the musical dimension is often the least effective in this company's productions. (I do find it odd, though, that while various attempts at British accents seem always to disfigure plays here by English authors, no attempt is made — grace à Dieu — to put on French ones in plays like this.)
AS DICKENS IS too sentimental, says my stupid prejudice, so George Bernard Shaw is too talky. I was looking forward to seeing Mrs. Warren's Profession as a duty owed to my intellectual curiosity, not an enjoyable entertainment. I was wrong. Her profession is that of Madame: Mrs. Warren saves herself from the poverty of the lower classes by turning not to factory work, poorly paid, long of hours, and beset by terribly unhealthy conditions, but to prostitution. A canny woman, she quickly realizes the money and position is to be gained through management, not labor, and she hooks up with a cynical member of minor nobility to develop a richly rewarding empire of houses in Ostend, Brussels, Vienna, and Budapest.
In the meantime she has educated a daughter of uncertain paternity through the English boarding-school system, rarely seeing her until she too attains maturity and casts about for her own way into presentable modern (Victorian) society. The meat of the play is the intricate dialectic between generations — not only of mother and daughter, of course, but of socially evolved, tolerated, and depended upon methods by which the female sex can take its place with in a male-dominated system.
Interestingly, and as is often the case chez Shaw, the males who dominate this action are pretty hapless — a young cynic who'd romance mother or daughter, whichever is handy; a minor ecclesiastic beset by regret, the Marquis (or whatever he is) who profits from Mrs Warren's profession, a likable architect who stands for Art and Free Spirit.
In the performance, the two women were particularly strong, easily, imperceptibly moving from early expository presentation — almost type-casting — to final detail and complexity. There are no solutions to the social problems which are Shaw's quandaries, precisely because there can not be an ideal stable society. There can only be relatively calm periods within the turbulent succession of human history. I suppose the analogy is ultimately with the vicissitudes of daily life, with the successions of hunger and satiety, desire and fulfillment, individualism and responsibility.