The 12 cast members of the Promethean Theatre Ensemble sit still on stage as the audience files in. An accordion (or equally old world instrument) covers David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” over the PA before the house lights dim. The entire cast launches into a choral rendition of Depeche Mode’s “Everything Counts,” appropriately foreshadowing the production’s anti-capitalist themes. The musical introduction is deftly executed and succeeded in getting me very excited to see what this cast could do with Giraudoux’s satiric comedy on a smaller scale. While the effort was valiant and the production finds its footing in a few key areas, it is clear that the company bit off more than it can chew when attempting to take on such a large scale production.
The Madwoman of Chaillot opens on a meeting between nefarious businessmen in a local Parisian cafe. In a matter of minutes, they manage to create a fictitious shell company, issue stock and then short the company to raise immense funds - capital that the businessmen use to double their money by hatching a plot to drill for oil within the Paris city limits. Only two things stand in their way: the city planner (which they coerce by attempting to bomb his office) and the titular Madwoman of Chaillot, owner of the land which sits atop a pool of untapped oil. The stage is set for both slapstick comedy, promising themes, and poignant points about community action against unchecked greed.
The production has strength in its chemistry amongst the cast. There are certain scenes that simultaneously entertain and have profound messages thanks to strong group acting. Some scenes hit a good blend of comedy and thematic development that would not have landed if the group dynamic between the characters wasn’t believable. One can feel the pretension as the businessmen sit and discuss how to swindle the poor, the disdain for ‘new finance’ is believable for all of Paris’ citizens, and the determination to band together to stop the nefarious businessmen’s plot is felt universally.
Unfortunately, these strengths are overshadowed by overly apparent issues which prevent a recommendation. Despite the group chemistry, it is clear that not enough time was given for each actor to really ‘own’ their character (outside of the titular madwoman). Just about every cast member is given the demanding task of playing two distinct parts, and the failure of mastering these results in the characters blending together in a bland, if sometimes confusing, way. This is further compounded by the pacing of the show. When so many characters are introduced, the plot lines between each of the characters demand introduction and satisfying resolution. The play attempts this with every character and as a result the production loses focus and feels distinctly disjointed. In short, the production tries to do too much with the limited resources it has, and the overall quality of the show suffers because of it. If certain plot lines were cut and resources were spent more on developing the characters, the production would have been that much more effective.
The Madwoman of Chaillot has its moments but fails to culminate in a satisfying performance. The moment-to-moment interactions between the characters and their group dynamics make up the shows strengths, but these are completely overshadowed by the unshakeable fact that Promethean Theatre Ensemble bit off more than they can chew.
Review by Ryan Moore
The Madwoman of Chaillot continues through March 17 at the Atheneum. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreinChicago's Review Round-Up.
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