Riding the coattails of Pacific Resident Theater’s recent impressive productions, which have included Chekhov’s challenging “Ivanov” and a luminous rendering of George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida,” director Daniel O’Connor’s current production is a testament to the theatrical ideals of its creator, Cocteau, who insisted on reaching beyond a play’s conventional boundaries and exploring “the fantastic, the dance, acrobatics, drama, satire, music, and the spoken word.” Throw in some full frontal nudity, and one can practically hear the unorthodox French master sigh with gratitude from the grave.
Staunch Francophiles may wince at the first words spoken, after a lovely initiation into the first act, in which a self-portrait of the play-wright floats upon a gauzy curtain and Piaf croons, “L’amooooour! L’amooooour!” The characters speak with British accents, but with a decidedly English flavor in mannerisms and costume, as well. The play is originally set in Paris in the ’30s, and while this time it’s set in the ’40s, it’s still Paris.
The choice is questionable at first, but given the snappy translation by Brit Jeremy Sams, it is clearly the strongest path to take, and the cross-cultural interplay adds an intriguing layer to the unfolding drama.
Story is that of an eccentric family teetering precariously on the tip of what is not one, but several, love triangles. At the center of the muddle is mother Yvonne, positively burping with love — maternal and otherwise — for her son Michael. Michael cheerfully returns her lust (locking lips with “Sophie,” as he calls her, more than once on her rumpled bed), though he seems oblivious to the pain he will cause her when he announces his affections for a pretty bookbinder, Madeleine.
Michael’s father George is equally distressed at the news, seeing as how he, too, is having an affair with this Madeleine. Aunt Leonie (Leo), Yvonne’s sister and pillar of “order” in the family, dislikes seeing George so unhappy (for, of course, she is in love with him) and decides to tidy things up by breaking up Michael and Madeleine.
Leo’s plan is foiled when she meets the endearing Madeleine, takes pity on her and convinces George and Yvonne that the two young lovers should stay together.
What happens in the end, however, is neat only in the sense that it is tragically complete; there is also a delicious sense of ambiguity as to who is to blame for the tragedy, and the lingering feeling that, when one member of the family goes, the larger organism is dangerously exposed.
The cast is nothing short of exemplary, and beautifully in sync as a whole. They move in a sort of jerky, drawn-out dance, each partner acting as parasite and as host. Marcia Firesten plays Yvonne with an uncanny ability to give the oppressive, Oedipal maman a welcome and hilarious presence on stage. A well-placed groan from her prompts an uproar, as does a simple blink, which she does perpetually, as if to clear her eyes of the greasy mascara smeared around them.
Her sister Leonie, in a crisp, spotless performance by Kathleen Garrett, is perhaps the most difficult character to pinpoint in the text, and Garrett portrays her with a diamond-hard, glittery edge that gives just enough to betray a tendency toward softness, vulnerability and even chaos (“So I’m a paradox,” she flatly proclaims in act two). The nod to a film noir femme fatale is perhaps a little too obvious here, though pulled off with panache.
With the exception of Leo, who superficially veils her stormy, untidy interior (an impassioned reading of an excerpt from Musset keeps the comic pace high in the second act), and Yvonne, who is steadily hysterical, each character is faced with falling apart at some point in the story.
George’s (in a fine, funny turn by Matt Gottlieb) rather British brand of smoking-jacket composure is dashed in the second act, when he unravels in front of Madeleine and turns at once pathetic and venomous.
Michael E. Rodger’s Michael is a buoyant and energetic lover (after all, he has to spread out between mother and g.f.) who in the second and third acts plays the part of l’amant trompe with such mussy, boyish anguish that we can’t help to, well, laugh.
And Katy Selverstone as Madeleine properly conveys her character’s naive confidence in matters of the heart, yet bears her “disorderly” side in full: At one point, she finds herself dangling from a spiral staircase, begging not to be left alone with George.
“She sounds adorable, your mother,” Madeleine chirps at Michael in act two, but later, when she is faced with mother and son snogging on the bed together, it’s clear she hasn’t a clue about what she’s gotten herself into.
Much has been made of Cocteau’s opium binge during the writing of this play, but in truth there were few moments in the artist’s adult life untouched by the ruby poppy.
Set by Victoria Profitt is true in form and color to the environments of “disorder” (Yvonne’s room) and “order” (Madeleine’s room), and lighting by Keith Endo compliments their respective warmth and coolness. Audrey Eisner’s costumes are so well-crafted to suit each character that such a thing as an uneven hem will force a grin.