Stratford Festival production of The Madwoman of Chaillot takes whimsical aim at its targets

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Mixing whimsy with a poignant message about endemic corruption, the Stratford Festival’s production of The Madwoman of Chaillot doesn’t flinch from its warning.

Director Donna Feore does a superb job of balancing the play’s surreal elements with that underlying caution, giving her actors room to bring the satire to colourful, breathing life.

An indictment of cruelty and greed, The Madwoman of Chaillot envisions a Paris in revolt. A collection of outcasts and artists – frustrated and afraid of a future dominated by avarice – rises up against the capitalists and “exploiters” who are scheming to drill beneath the city. Led by Countess Aurélie, the titular madwoman, these outsiders hold a trial in absentia for the industrialists, ultimately condemning them for their evil influence on the world.

The success of the Festival’s staging of the play hinges on the luminous performance by Seana McKenna as Aurélie. McKenna brings a mesmerizing complexity to her madwoman, eschewing more flamboyant eccentricities by wisely placing Aurélie within a different worldview. The character’s ostensible lunacy is more a result of this sympathetic perspective rather than any psychosis, but also informs her later decision to doom the exploiters. McKenna remains an enthralling presence throughout, showing early glimpses of steely resolve beneath her fancy.

The madwoman’s essential humanity, though, is revealed during a wonderful scene in which she shares her love of life with the suicidal Pierre, played with a quiet sensitivity by Antoine Yared. Her vivid narrative, recounting the marvels she can find in small moments, convinces the young man to abandon his plan to throw himself in the waters of the Seine.

Much of the play’s first act works to create the tension between the outcasts and the exploiters, bringing them together in the vibrant Chez Francis café. While the madwoman and her friends are more fully realized characters, the capitalists are deliberately portrayed as caricatures. Ben Carlson is a wonderfully arrogant President, dismissing the wandering jugglers, singers and pedlars with a haughty disdain. While not quite as sinister, David Collins brings a sense of smug entitlement to his cigar-puffing Baron. The two are soon joined in their plotting by Ryan Wilkie’s grinning Broker – a perfect parody of an unscrupulous opportunist – and Wayne Best’s menacing Prospector, who stalks the Tom Patterson stage like a silent-movie heavy. Their dastardly plan involves the assassination of a city official who has continuously blocked their attempts at drilling.

Through costume and setting, Feore and her designer, Teresa Przybylski, subtly show the four villains are trespassers in this world of artists and outcasts. The interior of the café is a swirl of colour, from the variegated lights dangling from the ceiling to the kaleidoscopic motifs that decorate the floor. Those patterns and colours are repeated in the costumes of the madwoman, the kitchen girl Irma (Mikaela Davies) and their friends while the capitalists are clad in dark suits or, in the case of the Prospector, black leather.

The second act focuses on Aurélie and the three other madwomen of Paris deciding on how best to deal with the “soulless” exploiters who have poisoned Paris. Briefly shaken by the revelation of the capitalists’ evil aims, Aurélie resolves to challenge their undeserved hegemony with the guidance of her three friends. A pivotal scene in this production, the meeting of the madwomen shows them as artists and creators while underscoring their own foibles. Marion Adler plays Gabrielle, the madwoman of Saint-Sulpice, with a girlish innocence while Kim Horsman gives Constance, the madwoman of Passy, a blunt honesty. Joséphine, the madwoman of Concorde is a latecomer to the tea party but, played with poise by Yanna McIntosh, provides the final push to judgment.

Unlike Madwoman’s opening act, the stage is littered with junk and old furniture during the tea party and subsequent tribunal, serving as the interior of Aurélie’s cellar apartment and the gateway to a bottomless pit. With her mind set on a trial, Aurélie invites the outcasts and eccentrics from the café to serve as a jury while The Ragman – a sonorous Scott Wentworth – assumes the role of exploiter in their defence. Wentworth is delightful as he roams the stage, speaking of his growing billions and degraded ideals while earning the ire of his outraged friends.

Working from a new Festival-commissioned translation by David Edney, Feore and her cast have put together a charming production that welcomes the play’s absurdity but doesn’t lose sight of its targets. The financiers and press agents that willingly march to their doom might be distortions, but their greed is not far removed from reality. It’s a happy ending – the pigeons of Paris fly again – but we realize that only happens in fantasy.

The Madwoman of Chaillot runs in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until Oct. 1.

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