The Mad: A Fracking Fairytale

by John Stoltenberg

(This report was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

In the words of Countess Aurelia, the title character in Jean Giraudoux’s comedy The Madwoman of Chaillot, ”Nothing is ever so wrong in this world that a sensible woman can’t set right in the course of an afternoon.” And that’s exactly what happens in this fable when Aurelia and two other eccentrics save the planet from depredation.

A prospector and his capitalist cronies intend to drill for oil that pools deep in the earth beneath Aurelia’s charming Parisian café. The three madwomen devise a plot to dispatch them to their death—all of them, every last one percenter. In Giraudoux’s prescient farce—written in 1943, first performed in 1945, and frequently revived—the evildoers’ comeuppance is a satisfaction to behold.

B. Stanley, artistic director of Theatre du Jour, happens to have a home in West Virginia, where at this moment forces are massing to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale by means of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. There is a fierce debate going on and much at stake. Proponents of fracking say it creates jobs, stimulates the local economy, and ensures the nation’s energy security. Opponents say it will be an environmental disaster. As Stanley knows firsthand, for affected residents of Western Maryland, Eastern West Virginia, and parts of Pennsylvania, fracking is a black-and-white issue, such that the dispute between the two sides brooks no meaningful conversation.

Stanley had the intriguing notion to adapt The Madwoman of Chaillot into a condensed version that might bridge the gap or at least open communications between adversaries. Like portable rural street theater, the show could travel to those areas and be performed for residents in nontheatrical settings as a point of departure for discussion. The plot parallels could not be plainer between what befell the Madwoman’s Paris and what’s going down above the Marcellus Shale. Lest there be any doubt, Stanley’s adaption—which I enjoyed Sunday night at DC Arts Center—makes specific reference to diagonal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The show, though a pointed parable, does not play like agit prop, however. Stanley and his intrepid company of co-devisers have preserved all the quirky delight of Giraudoux’s two-acter and compressed it into a brisk and charming hour and a quarter. Names and lines and other things are changed, but the story plays out perfectly pleasantly and requires no prior knowledge of the original.

The set is five simple pink panels that can be put up and taken down wherever, and there are no light cues. Onstage are three small café tables with white tablecloths. Before the show, stage left, Emile, a waiter (David Berkenbilt), plays a small accordion, and Esmerelda (Kathryn Winkler) plays guitar. Their music sets a populist tone; among the tunes I recognized was “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” As in the original, the bad guys show up—Broker (Jerry Herbilla), Prospector (Shawn Jain), Mr. Axelrod (Annetta Dexter Sawyer), and Mrs. Cummings-Tommard (Bettina Stap)—while assorted locals lend color—Sal, a peddler (Jonathan Frye); a Gladys, a blind patron (Casey Leffue); and Irma, a waitress (Raffaela Perra O’Neill).

The entrance of the Madwoman (Rachel Reed, here called Miss Amelia) is nutty and grand as it should be. Before long, apprised of the oil-drilling scheme, she concocts a counterscheme for the despoilers’ demise. A lot of imaginative and fun doubling also begins. Herbilla becomes Peter, the man who tried to jump off a bridge believing life is not worth living (Miss Amelia changes his mind on that point); Leffue becomes the Sergeant who rescued him by clocking him. The two other madwomen appear, appropriately peculiar: Sawyer as Miss Constance and Stap as Miss Gabriella. And in Act Two (which is really a second scene; there is no intermission), Frye returns as the man who tells Miss Aurelia the secret of how to open a hidden door in a pink panel leading down to a cul-de-sac cavern. Forthwith Miss Amelia lures all the world’s rapacious rich to their duly deserved doom.

Stanley and company have conceived the play as a fairytale, and in this iteration it really is. A host of Giraudoux’s tangential theatrical embellishments have been stripped away; the boulevard comedy has been transformed into a playful pathway with a clear linear direction. WSC Avant Bard will stage a full production of the whole play, in a new translation, in June. But what Theatre du Jour has done in compacting the work for a particular community is a noteworthy endeavor in its own right, and much to be commended.

It is one thing to make theater in a space that people must come to. It is quite another thing to take theater to where people are at. One way is not correct and the other way is not wrong. Both enrich audiences’ lives, and both increase theater’s relevance and reach.

Rarely, however, do we have a chance to attend a theater space close by and see firsthand what will be presented out on the road, one that leads literally to where people’s lives and land are in crisis. Giraudoux could not have imagined that his fable could one day have practical potential, in an afternoon or maybe an evening, to help set  something right that has in fact gone wrong in the world. What Theatre du Jour has done with The Mad: A Fracking Fairytale helps us imagine how that could actually happen.

Running Time: One hour 15 minutes with no intermission.

The Mad: A Fracking Fairytale plays through March 21, 2015 at Theatre du Jour performing at the District of Columbia Arts Center (DCAC) – 2438 18th Street, in Washington, DC. Tickets are $20 and $15 for DCAC members. Tickets can be purchased online, or at the door.

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