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It was written seventy years ago by a Frenchman who was aiming to satirize the Nazis' occupation of France. And yet Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot, the play that kicks off Strollers Theatre's 2013 season starting this Friday, is likely to feel sharply relevant to certain audiences in modern Madison.
Especially the part where the good guys trick all the one percenters into jumping into a black, bottomless pit.
In the universe of Madwoman, Paris is threatened by greedy corporate execs who want to tear it all up to get at the oil reserves supposedly lurking beneath the city. It's the fringes of society—in this case, characters like the Ragpicker, the Flower Girl, the Street Singer and, of course, Countess Aurelia, the sweetly delusional Madwoman of the play's title—who have the wisdom to recognize the threat and do something about it.
"That was the first thing," says director and Forward Theater co-founder Sam White. "It's this seventy-year-old play we experience now, and we can say things haven't changed very much. It points out that in our society, profit is the ultimate goal."
White re-discovered the play a few years ago while working on one of his own. He was looking to add in a mock trial, when his wife, Forward Theater Company manager Celia Klehr, reminded him that Madwoman centers on a mock court proceeding in which one of the streetfolk stands for the defense, uttering this jaw-dropping justification for the blind accumulation of wealth: "I spend so that you may live." (Remember, that line was written seventy years ago.)
White's aiming for a more modern staging, but he's keeping the play's original French setting, unlike some other modern efforts that have tried to transplant it to U.S. cities like New Orleans. There are a couple of technical concessions, too, given that the Bartell Theatre stage lacks the easy ability to provide that bottomless pit all the bad guys get lured into. Instead, White and his cast will use a vertical vortex to spirit them offstage and into the great beyond.
Look also for some touches of Bertolt Brecht, another Euro playwright who flung more than a few dramatic barbs at Hitler's regime. White's a big fan of Brechtian minimalism.
"This is not American realism," says White, of Madwoman. "It's a romantic, poetic allegory, and it defies description."
The Madwoman of Chaillot opens Friday, August 30, at 8 p.m. and runs through September 21.
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