Theoretical plays are probably best served by theoretical productions. Actors and creative staff could gather (in a theoretical space) and theorize on how to present a piece that exists only in theory. Audiences could pay (in theoretical tender) to stare into space and speculate on the meaning of a work that loses its meaning when it moves from theory into production. Although Les Waters’ staging of this barely there performance piece is slightly more dynamic than this (theoretical) rendering of it, watching a show that doesn’t want to exist in the first place makes one feel like a spectator at an execution.
The lovely and lucid focal point of this otherwise elusive piece is Kathleen Chalfant, who plays a woman named Madeleine who is either retreating from her past or making it up as she goes along. At one time a great actress, renowned for her film and stage work, Madeleine lives on some undefined existential plane at the edge of a featureless landscape by the sea. Prodded to recollect her history by a granddaughter she doesn’t seem to recognize (played with a maddening lack of inflection by Marin Ireland), the older woman tells a halting tale of a daughter who had an ill-fated love affair and drowned in Savannah Bay when she was 17.
But Madeleine is an actress, after all, and she seems to have misplaced her memory, so whatever she says is open to question. And that’s precisely as Marguerite Duras would have it, since the playwright (who is far better known as a novelist) was adamant about the need to protect a play text against literal interpretation. According to a helpful if stuffy program note by French dramaturg Sabine Quiriconi, “Duras preferred what a solitary reading of the text allows — the creative and intimate peeling away of layers of text, attaining a multiplicity of meaning — which traditional staging makes impossible.”
However that may be, we happen to be in a theater, not the reading room of a library, and Waters’ rigid adherence to the rules of the game as dictated by Duras results in a production that is empty in the sense of being devoid of meaning — rather than empty in the sense of being open to many levels of interpretation.
The vast, unshifting expanse of sea and sky projected on the rear wall of the stage is too static a backdrop for a play that depends for its life on the inner landscape of its characters. Except for one heightened moment when the light changes from a stone-washed blue to a pulsing aquamarine, Myung Hee Cho’s abstract setting is largely devoid of action. Ilona Somogyi’s classical costumes — long, fluid, columnar gowns in vibrant shades of blood and wine — are far more interesting to watch. They, at least, move.
If anyone’s got the hang of Duras’ paradoxical theatrical theories, it’s Chalfant, who uses voice and body — in particular, that graceful, arching neck — to say nothing definitive, but to suggest a multitude of possible interpretations for Madeleine’s halting memories and detached manner. Given a line like “I can’t remember what I remember when I remember — but it’s there,” she connects to the essential mystery of Madeleine, a woman who is trying to forget the very truths she is struggling so hard to remember.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many lines like that in a script that, in Bray’s presumably faithful translation, is elegant in style but monotonous in tone and numbing in content.