If you must indulge in wishful thinking, you might as well do it on an elaborate scale, as French writer Jean Giraudoux did in his play “The Madwoman of Chaillot.” This piece of philosophical whimsy tells of an aging woman who saves civilization from the rampages of predatory capitalism.
A self-confident oddball who feeds stray cats and who regularly makes rationalism-defying statements like “At noon all men are called Fabrice,” Aurélie recruits to her world-rescuing project a ragpicker, a sewer worker, and three zany female pals — one of whom owns an invisible dog. Matched against this team, the sinister forces of global business haven’t got a chance.
First produced in 1945, the year after Giraudoux’s death, “Madwoman” contains lines and themes that feel eerily timely today. So you have to admire WSC Avant Bard for mounting theater-scholar Laurence Senelick’s translation of Giraudoux’s script. Unfortunately, the acting in director Christopher Henley’s production lacks the kind of polish that might turn this extremely talky play into an engrossing theatrical experience.
The staging does get a boost from Collin Ranney’s evocative set, which features mottled pastel colors and Parisian-cityscape vistas that recall works by French artist Raoul Dufy. When the play begins, an enormous painting of a Parisian bakery hangs behind a set of bistro chairs and tables. This setup depicts a cafe frequented by Aurélie (Cam Magee). Patrons also include a set of rapacious businessmen, including the Chairman of the Board (Jay Hardee), the Baron (Kim Curtis), the Stock-Broker (Joe Palka) and the Prospector (Theo Hadjimichael).
These ruthless speculators share confidences about their pasts and plans, making numerous remarks that have a chilling topicality in our own era of fracking controversies and credit-default swaps. The Prospector speaks casually of mining for oil in Paris and stripping the planet of natural resources. The Stock-Broker outlines a market-manipulation scheme so fiendishly complex it would make an SEC commissioner’s hair stand on end. When the Chairman speaks of “the only human organization which our times will tolerate: the corporation,” it’s impossible not to think of the are-corporations-people debate that has roiled America’s last half decade.
Aurélie is the feminine yin to the businessmen’s villainous macho yang: She represents humanism, compassion and egalitarianism, as well as a respect for the past that contrasts with the financiers’ plans for profit-seeking destruction and innovation. Channeling this appealingly eccentric figure, Magee exhibits poise and flair, and she certainly looks striking in her aptly kooky outfits, which include a glitter-enhanced chartreuse robe and feathered headdress. (Ranney designed the show’s costumes.)
Many of the production’s other performances have a fidgety, restless, ambling quality that looks somewhat unprofessional. The flaw undermines the efficacy of the stylized movement that is a prevailing physical mode here — in theory, a suitable-enough match for the play’s non-naturalistic storytelling. (The show’s sound design underscores the non-naturalistic approach, sometimes punctuating characters’ lines with musical quotations. Because the musical cues have an abrupt, pasted-in feel, the strategy is not very effective.)
Some of the show’s more persuasive turns include James Finley’s portrait of the stooped, sharp-witted Ragpicker; Tony Greenberg’s droll cameo as the quirky Sewer-Man; and Daven Ralston’s rendering of Irma, a sultry and opinionated dishwasher (“I detest what is ugly; I adore what is beautiful”). Christine Hirrel is both funny and compellingly dignified as Joséphine, the Madwoman of La Concorde, who becomes a co-conspirator with Aurélie and the Madwomen of Passy and Saint-Sulpice (Anne Nottage and Tiffany Garfinkle, in outlandish thrift shop attire).
You have to cheer inwardly when the eccentric women look set to defeat the cult of irresponsible moneymaking. (Lighting designer Christopher Annas-Lee helps realize the play’s dramatic climax.) Would that their plan for destroying greed were possible in real life.
Wren is a freelance writer.
By Jean Giraudoux, translated by Laurence Senelick. Directed by Christopher Henley; choreography, Jane Franklin; sound design, Frank DiSalvo Jr.; properties, Kevin Laughon. With Gray West, Denise B. Marois, Jose Martinez and Zach Roberts. About 2 hours and 45 minutes. Tickets: $30-35. Through June 28 at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington. Call 703-418-4808 or visit avantbard.org.