Review by Karen Topham; photos by
Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot is a satirical play from 1945 that seems to maintain its social relevance even today. This has to do with the main villains of the piece: greedy corporate bigwigs who are willing to destroy anything to get at oil. Sound familiar? This play, like the 1967 French film The King of Hearts, makes the argument that, in an insane world, the only truly sane people are the ones who are “mad.” In that film, it was war that was the enemy; here it is corporate greed. In both cases, it is the riffraff of society, those who live outside of its mainstream, who represent the Truth. That they may be insane is never really the issue. And in the central role of The Countess, aka The Madwoman of Chaillot, Jeff Award-winning actress Elaine Carlson lights up the stage.
It’s important, in staging this play, to cast the right person at its center, and Carlson embodies the Countess perfectly: resplendent in a bright red dress befitting her “royal” status (from costume designer Rachel Sypniewski), she owns every scene she is in. Her performance is over the top, of course; this play is as much farce as it is satire, and Carlson seems to have taken her cue from another 60s cult film, Harold and Maude, as her characterizations and inflections basically channel Ruth Gordon’s Golden Globe-nominated performance, delivering her lines with powerful bravado as if they were the most urgent matter in the world. And they are: several times she points out that her small band of misfits is all that is left to “save the world.”
The story is this: in the little cafe she frequents, the Countess overhears a business magnate planning to mine a recently-discovered oil deposit in central Paris, not at all caring what monuments and historical structures he has to destroy in the process. Since it is clear from his conversation that only a handful of people know of the oil’s existence, the Countess decides that the only way to stop them is to “exterminate” them, and she has a way to do it. A sewerman she helped once tells her that the oil can be accessed from a secret door in her own basement. There’s a catch though: the door leads to an inescapable labyrinth. Her plan: trick the plotters into going down those secret stairs, where they will be lost forever. To justify her actions, she places them on “trial” (in absentia) with one of her people acting as lawyer for the defense: it is only with a “guilty” verdict that she dares to proceed.
But the plot, important as it is, is secondary here to the array of wonderful people that we get to meet. In addition to the Countess herself and her two “madwomen” friends (Jamie Bragg and Laura Strum, who share a glorious scene midway through the play) and the business President himself—Jerry Bloom, who also shines as the Ragpicker, the very poor man who acts as the defense for the rich in the trial—we meet characters like the Peddler, played by Meghann Tabor, a street person who sells whatever she can get to whoever will buy it. We also meet the Singer, a lovely creation by Jennifer Vance, a woman who is stuck singing the same two lines of a song over and over because she cannot recall the rest of the piece that obsesses her. And there is the Messenger, a deaf man played by Brendan Connelly who seems to know a lot more than he probably should. Villains include the Prospector who has discovered the oil, played by Brian Hurst, who also plays the Sewerman; the Baron, played by Brendan Hutt, who doubles as the Sergeant, a friendly policeman; and the Broker (Bragg again in wonderful and ebullient form as a woman who desperately loves numbers and money). In the middle of all of this are a shy waitress, Irma, played by Brenda Wlazlo, and Pierre (Xavier Lagunas), a young man who gets himself caught up in the plot but tries to kill himself to escape it, and a possible love blooming between them.
The set by Jeremiah Barr is deceptively simple, a fact that becomes clear as the second act begins. Along with Leigh Barrett’s lights and Sam Allyn’s sound design, Barr’s set is intentionally minimalistic, further emphasizing the characters in this comedy about unusual people doing an extraordinary thing.
But it’s ultimately Carlson’s show, and she comes ready to play. Watching her is like a master class in character acting, and the scene in which she allows the other two madwomen to outshine her for a time is brilliant: she gives them plenty of room to establish unusual, memorable characters and then re-enters the scene, taking all of the attention despite their colorful clothes and characteristics. She’s a joy to watch. This Madwoman of Chaillot is marvelous, funny, and timely. It serves as a reminder that there is nothing worse on this earth than mankind’s greed. If only there were a madwoman of Washington, DC, we might actually have a chance.
The Madwoman of Chaillot is now playing at the Athenaeum Theatre (presented by Promethean Theatre Ensemble), 2936 N. Southport Ave, Chicago through March 17. Tickets are $19-29 and are available at athenaeumtheatre.org/studios. For more information about this and other shows, see theatreinChicago.com.