Victorian struggles to bring ‘Madwoman’ to life

By Milan Paurich

Jean Giraudoux’s 1945 play “The Madwoman of Chaillot” has always suffered from a case of the cutes, and the current Victorian Players production does little to temper the work’s essential unctuousness.

Populated with stock villains and equally hackneyed heroes, Giraudoux’s “insanity-is-the-next-best-thing-to-godliness” fable has the weird sensation of appearing both seriously dated and eerily relevant at the same time.

The premise is certainly topical enough. At a Parisian cafe, a batty old lady (titular madwoman Countess Aurelia) overhears a plot being hatched by some dastardly Masters of the Universe types to despoil her fair city’s natural beauty by drilling for oil.

Along with some equally eccentric pals (a ragpicker, a waitress, a hippy-dippy street musician, etc.), Aurelia decides to take pre-emptive action. After inviting the greedy capitalist pigs to her home, she lures them into the basement cellar and...well, you get the picture.

Despite the noblest of intentions, Giraudoux’s polemic borders on sentimental treacle much of the time. Aurelia and her fey friends never seem like recognizable human beings, and the bad guys are too buffoonish to pose any real threat. The dialogue is either faux-poetic or clunkily literal. Or maybe it’s just this particular English translation that sounds so arch.

As precious and mannered as it is, “The Madwoman of Chaillot” could still work as a timeless, call-to-arms parable with a seamless ensemble cast and fluid direction.

Alas, the Vic’s “Chaillot” falls conspicuously, depressingly short on most counts.

The performances are as uneven as director Shawn E. Lockaton’s often sluggish pacing. Amariah McIntosh’s delightful Mlle. Gabrielle is the life of a Mad Hatter-style tea party in Act Two, but Tanja Temelkoff is simply too young to convincingly play the geriatric Aurelia.

Additionally, Temelkoff’s sing-songy voice makes every line — and she’s got the lion’s share of dialogue in Giraudoux’s verbose script — sound the same.

Audrey Allen brings considerable sass and attitude to her deaf-mute character; Carl Sopkovich acquits himself nicely in dual roles; Eddie Richards makes a promising debut as a sympathetic sergeant; Jennifer Milligan is quietly effective as the cafe waitress; and Lockaton does a commendable job as the show’s combination male ingenue/deus ex machina.

Considerably less effective are wan supporting turns by Gary Deckant, Bill Finley, Clint Joste and Bill Nibert.

The most impressive element of the production are Pam Sacui’s splendid, period-appropriate costumes which add a dash of color to the otherwise drab settings.

Unfortunately, not even Sacui’s inspired effort can quite bring this somnambulant warhorse to life.

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