Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot (through Sept. 21 at the Bartell Theatre) began as a thinly veiled commentary on fascism, according to the director's notes for the new Strollers Theatre production. Rather than write actual Nazi characters, the playwright chose to illustrate their cruelty in the form of industrialists willing to exploit anything and anyone for profit, even if it meant tearing up beautiful, historical Paris to get at suspected oil veins flowing far below. Sound familiar?
Giraudoux's metaphor proves even more prescient today when greedy capitalists, not dictators, epitomize inhumanity. In the opening scene of the play, the president (played engagingly by Ned O'Reilly) boasts about his rags-to-riches climb. He began as a petty thief, then a drug dealer, and finally a corporate boss. Only the president's corporations are mostly Ponzi schemes, as crooked as his earlier crimes. The essential thing, he says, isn't what a company does, but rather what it's called. What's required is a name that stirs the public imagination. Style over substance. Sound familiar?
In one cringe-worthy moment, an investor rushes onto the stage, begging the president to accept his life savings. When the investor humbly requests a receipt, the president, in true Ponzi fashion, demands one of the investor instead. Who is hurt by these antics and their outcomes is not the concern of the president -- or capitalism itself. People are collateral damage. "All 100 franc notes belong to me," the prez says.
Enter the prospector, a man gifted with the unusual ability to taste petroleum in tap water. With the help of this character, performed with coiled snake-like intensity by Sean Langenecker, the president's newest company gets a name and mission. Who can stop their web of lies? Only the Madwoman of Chaillot, of course.
The Madwoman, or Countess, as she is also known, is the humanistic opposite of the industrialists. Older, maternal, warm, she's the Auntie Mame of this world, spreading quirkiness and la vie en rose everywhere she goes. The people love her for it. Maxine Fleckner Ducey plays her charmingly, and I must say, her fuscia and aubergine costume is mesmerizing as well.
Obviously, the politics of the play are soft. Street people equal good; corporate entities bad. There's not much gray area or postmodern discernment, which makes sense when you remember Giraudoux's intended target, the Nazis.
If you like your evil pure and your good light, populist and with the twitter of Mary Poppins' birds, Strollers' Madwoman is definitely for you. Giraudoux's text is often lyrical, but at least for the first half of the show, the bustle of the street people, waiters, jugglers and bicyclists that populate the stage distracted me from the text's poetry. At one point, the president can barely hear himself speak. "This cafe is a circus!" he cries. Though it may make me a member of the evil empire, I tend to agree.