The current K-State Theater production of “The Madwoman of Chaillott” reverses a couple of trends regular visitors to the attractive Nichols Theater will have noticed. Jessica Thomas’s set is intentionally sketchy. It features the suggestion of a canopy, made of decaying silk bunting, a few trunks and, during the first act, a bridge of facing stairs along the back wall of the thrust stage.
This contrasts with recent K-State Players sets, including the massive one for last fall’s “The Adding Machine” and the one for “The Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a junior high gym that was almost too real. But “The Madwoman’s” set suits Kate Anderson’s take on this lightly absurdist play, written during the Nazi occupation of Paris by Jean Giraudoux.
The lighting (designed by John Uthoff) is relatively more important as the production induces the viewer to collaborate in establishing the scenes. Ryan Andrew Bruce’s costumes were more complete and conventional than was the set, but they certainly helped give us a feeling of the distance between everyday reality and the events in the Paris cafe and mansion basement of the play’s two acts.
The story follows an attempt by greedy warmongers to bypass public opinion in their quest for oil, a deposit of which the Texas-style “Prospector” (James Sherwood) sensed was under the City of Light. In the first act he conspires with serial corporation generator The President (Joey Boos) to form “International Substrate of Paris, Inc.,” and outfit already overcapitalized before its purpose is found in the coining of its all-important name.
Toward the second half of the first act, the Countess (Elise Poehling) appears for her regular cafe visit. Employees and neighborhood hangers-on all cater to the very eccentric title character. Once the President and the Prospector have gone, the eavesdroppers try to give the Countess an up-to-date notion of how large the threat represented by commercial interests looms.
So the Countess begins organizing a response. Having heard from a “Sewer Man” (Charles Johnston, who is also a street musician during much of the play), she knows of an attractive subterranean prison for the villains, and she leaves them clues to draw them to her house. Before they arrive she and three other area “madwomen” hold a quick mock trial which gives them grounds for casting the baddies into the pit. And then the barbarians arrive, in waves.
The play features dozens of parts, and so the thirteen actors in the company had to double and triple. Erika Williams, for example, wore an oversized puppet suit to play the Deaf Mute and also appeared as the doctor, trying to “save” a man who nearly threw himself into the Seine, and as a third character. Boos was one of the judgmental madwomen in the second act, the one with the imaginary dog about which he himself or she herself had no illusions. “If you adore animals, you should not pet them when they’re not here.”
Everything in the production worked pretty well. The show had pace. Boos and then Poehling were strong anchors for the action. Isabella Alonso, late of MHS, and Spencer Rotolo-Utz provided the romantic interest, an object lesson in our understanding of the Countess’s history. And Anderson is plenty canny enough not to let the play descend into a staged version of the recent “Occupy” protests, something one might expect in a contemporary production.
While “The Madwoman of Chaillott” is not one of the most atmospheric plays in the contemporary rotation, this production had a strong air to it—and I’m not referring to the hazy atmosphere Technical Designer Ben Stark managed to give to the scene in the Countess’s basement. I felt myself drawn into the staging of the play, and I certainly enjoyed my time in Paris.