As Chris Howard observes in her director’s note for the ambitious SCP production of “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” we “welcome you into a whimsical world inhabited by two kinds of characters: those who live in a dream and those who are actively creating a nightmare.”
Playwright Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944) wrote this poetic and witty piece in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of France. But wherever and whenever the powerful nightmarishly arrange the world to suit their desires at the expense of the put-upon, the play remains relevant, and Friday night’s audience laughed knowingly in a few spots.
The play opens in a café and soon focuses on a cadre of busy, self-important customers (played by Steven Leifer, Robin MacDuffie, Robert L. Hegeman, and Alan Angelo) making plans to drill for oil under the streets of Paris. The charming but dotty Countess Aurelia, AKA the Madwoman (Lucy Breyer, strong throughout) gets wind of the plan and, with a cohort of equally kooky but sweet women d’un certain age, decides to hold a trial of these selfish blowhards.
A dramatic and even terrifying moment comes in the “courtroom” at Aurelia’s home when the Ragpicker (a mellifluous Fred Sirois), who is standing in for the bad guys, loses complete control and exposes his intention: to rule the world. “I am the law!” he shouts. The jury of street people quickly finds him guilty, and when the real miscreants later show up to Aurelia’s apartment, they are sent below. Whether “below” is the sewers of Paris or Hell is not clear, but this is a fantasy piece after all, so we get the idea.
Everyone looks good in costumes by Joseph Fava, Beth Ruman, and Macia Thomas in a production that ultimately satisfies, despite a few shortcomings. For example, Duncan Morrison’s set for Act I doesn’t always accommodate the large number of people -- oddly blocked -- on stage at the same time: they have to squeeze between the tables and their entrances and exits are challenged by hanging menu posters. The overuse of red also makes it difficult to read depth. However, the set for Act 2 is appealing and completely functional, the lack of steps down to the men’s uncertain fate notwithstanding.
The musical touches (courtesy of concertina playing by David Barnert) and juggling (Daniel Weiner) provide some color, but less would be more.
Siobahn Shea as the waitress, Irma, touchingly delivers a monologue at the end of Act 1 that makes us interested to return for Act 2, which opens with a delightful scene between the cockeyed Aurelia and the equally silly Sewer Man (John J. Quinan), followed by an amusing gathering of countesses, played confidently by Melissa Brown, Christine Vermilyea, and Susan Katz. Indeed, we are really down Alice’s rabbit hole by this point in the story, but it’s also in this act that Giraudoux’s most thought-provoking ideas emerge as the evildoers get their comeuppance and Aurelia says, sweetly, “Nothing is ever so wrong in this world that a sensible woman can’t set it right in the course of an afternoon.”
Whimsical? Perhaps. But society has tried other approaches, and most of them haven’t worked out particularly well.
The Madwoman of Chaillot
WHERE: Schenectady Civic Players, 12 S. Church St.
WHEN: Through Oct. 21
HOW MUCH: $20
MORE INFO: 518-382-2081, or www.civicplayers.org