Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Therese Raquin

Photo/Stan Barouh

Not to take anything away from Émile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin . . . no, wait, let's: even for 1867, Zola's novel is torpid; Neal Bell's terrific dramatization, however, is a torrid smash. Assisted by Jim Petosa's wonderfully poetic stagecraft, Bell has put a stake through the heart of dry naturalism. His version, currently running in repertoire at the reliable PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project), puts the focus back on the immediate needs of the characters, glossing over the book's detailed, yet all too distanced, notes on "temperament."

Instead, he brings a bit of Ibsen's modernism to the work, showing Raquin's blossoming from stark apathy ("I can't be frightened to death; I'm already dead and this is hell") to ravenous passion, and then her murderous fall ("I wanted to hammer his sleeping face in"). Petosa adds a fair share of romanticism to the slow, sensual movements--from the yawning distances that open the play to the tight, circular clasps of its middle and the eventual locked-in doom of the ending. And for good measure, both put more weight on the circumstances of the play, so that what was shocking 150 years ago (the adultering Laurent hides under his lover's discarded clothes) is still shocking today (Laurent's now hiding under his lover's dress, pleasuring her as she attempts to casually sip a cup of tea in front of her aunt; in the next scene, Laurent will be kissing that aunt with that mouth of his).

Once, it was enough simply to follow in the footsteps of Edgar Allen Poe; today, we care more for the agonizing humanism of the characters than the spectral visitations of their temperament. And this is where Bell and Petosa excel: we first meet Thérèse (Lily Balsen) as she sits in the foreground, looking out into the audience, doing her best to ignore her aunt (Helen-Jean Arthur), who chatters as idly as she embroiders, and the consumptive coughing of her cousin, Camille (Willie Orbison), shown here as a faint shadow behind a scrim. The scene is simple enough: if she's doomed to marry this man, she might as well act as dead as she feels--she certainly has no desire to while away her time at dominoes with Camille's social circle (Peter B. Schmitz, Michael Kessler, Stephanie Spencer, and Jordan Tirrell-Wysocki). But when she meets Laurent (Scott Janes), a roguish painter and old friend of Camille's, she can't help but come alive in his arms.

These are clever themes to mix: a sense of morbidity with a dash of sweetness. Balsen, who carries herself like a younger, more innocent Helena Bonham Carter, nails the role by sweeping her evils under the rug of childishness. Her sexual awakening--accompanied by immediate, all-consuming lust--believably drowns out any morals she might have . . . which makes it all the more plausible that later, in the wake of such wrongdoing, she might have genuine regret. She is haunted by a ghost, yes (and here, Orbison finds the morbidity for his actual sweetness), but what really gets to us is how she haunts herself. Janes comes across more as a rugged foil for Balsen--his needs are, you might say, as masculine as his character--but even still, it's a crisp performance. Even Ms. Arthur, who spends most of the play in doddering territory, turns in an exceptionally refined performance: her character learns of her children's betrayal, but only after she's had a paralyzing stroke that makes it impossible to do anything but seethe (and, thanks to stage magic, orate).

It is very easy to be poetic--to say that one's expression is as empty as an air shaft. It's harder to justify the reasons behind that expression (as Bell and Petosa have done), and harder still to actually paint that expression on the stage (as Balsen has done). Thérèse Raquin is filled with such excellent translations and interpretations, and while that's easy to say, it won't at all be hard to believe for those who have seen it.

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