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The Arts
July 4-10, 2007

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Parisian Logic

'The Madwoman of Chaillot' uses her madness as her superpower in CTC production

By Marianne Messina

COUNTESS AURELIA, the titular Madwoman of Chaillot in Jean Giraudoux's play, throws logic to the wind, and all in an afternoon rids Paris of the "evil ones"—no, not the rogue governments of oil-rich nations, but close. Aurelia means the evil ones "pulling up my flowers and poisoning my dogs," who also want to drill up the streets of Paris for oil. In contemporary terms, Aurelia is a kind of a comic-book hero and her madness is her superpower. She solves her problems through stand-ins—imperfect people stand in for their invisible better selves, young lovers stand in for dead ones, and a friend stands in for the enemy. But since this is a play written in Nazi-occupied France, Aurelia confronts her enemies the way one must, obliquely. Perhaps director Gayle Cornelison and set designer Will Lowry had this in mind with the set's tilted postcard buildings and the clever, oil-well makeover of the Eiffel Tower.

At a sidewalk cafe, the three-piece-suit types like the President (a wiry, wily Chris Mahle) and the Prospector (broad-shouldered, stentorian Kyle Payne) take frequent time out from their petroleum plotting to disdain the likewise nameless proletarians around them—the Street Singer (Ryan Christopher), the Ragpicker (Will Huddleston), the Street Juggler (Stefan Fisher). Here, occasional aimlessness among the throngs gets the show off to a deceptively timid start. But production takes charge when the chaotic street circus gives way to a more ordered vaudevillian progression of villains. Countess Aurelia is played forcefully by Holly Cornelison as she decides over tea with her friends (Act 2) not how to eradicate the enemy but how to do it with a clear conscience. The solution is a monkey trial with the cynical Ragpicker standing in for the accused Prospectors and Presidents. Will Huddleston gives a sophisticated performance, slick, animated and convincing, as he delivers the reverse logic, "Sympathy for the Devil" defense of the greedy ("Money means nothing to me; money sticks to me"; "I send to Egypt for figs. I can't get rid of it"; "I mix morals with mink"). (Ragpicker also gets the "pimp" speech, but you'll have to see the show for that.)

Despite the Ragpicker defense, venerable kangaroo judge Madame Josephine (Catherine Johnson), in her red-and-gold Victorian finery, rules to do away with the culprits. Even as she totters on a cane, Johnson's commanding performance ensures respect for the wisdom of age and tradition. Costume designer Jane Lambert provides the tea coterie with dresses in amazing layers of drapery and bustles, topped by huge hats with heaps of attachments, be they flowers, bows or tulle. But the coup de grâce is a beautiful piece of choreography around Fisher's juggling act. While the street people are amused by a juggler, the suits are bedazzled by the Broker (Jeffrey Glass). The Broker prattles stock quotes fast as ticker tape, and Fisher juggles his pins like a Power Point demonstration. "Going up, up, up," says the Broker—the pins fly higher. "Going down, down"—Fisher crouches and reins the arc in tight. Fisher matches Glass' final numerical eruption with four glowing, color-shifting balls.

In a sense, this human kaleidoscope is Aurelia's psychic game board. Only her intimates have names. Hence, the suicidal young victim of the Prospector's extortion, a sweet-faced Pierre (Joey Banks), happens to remind Aurelia of her one (failed) love (curious how her lover's name was Adolphe—but enough of history). In her "mad" relationship to Pierre, Aurelia caresses, doctors and assures him she won't let him go in between the times she's encouraging him to love and marry the young waitress Irma (Sarah Thermond). Enveloped like pearl in the good-vs.-evil mollusk, how Aurelia relates to Pierre/Adolphe is at the heart of the play. Under Cornelison's direction, Banks' Pierre remains accepting and tender toward Aurelia, whether she's treating him as Adolphe or Pierre. This leaves the choice up to her, how to direct the love she has rescued and revived. Above all, this good-hearted production leaves the madwoman's credibility in tact to reveal that a little bit of fantasy works in mysterious ways.

The Madwoman of Chaillot, a California Theatre Center production, plays July 5, 12, 1920 and 28 at 8pm at the Sunnyvale Community Center, 550 E. Remington Dr., Sunnyvale. Tickets are $21-$25. (408.720.0873)

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