After a vast oil field is discovered beneath a beloved city, why should tycoons let an inconvenient truth like environmental devastation stand between them and their profits? Jean Giraudoux's "The Madwoman of Chaillot" slyly posed that prescient question back in 1943, and a superb revival at A Noise Within in Pasadena extracts every drop of contemporary relevance from the play's satirical black gold.
A work that defies easy labels, "The Madwoman of Chaillot" delivers insightful social criticism with sharp-eyed realism, then veers abruptly into a whimsical utopian fantasy. L.A. veteran stage director Stephanie Shroyer proves an ideal choice to steer A Noise Within's ensemble through the play's mash-up of classical and modernist elements.
The central theme of unfettered greed is set in the opening scene, as a self-serving president (Wesley Mann) promotes stock market investments as the triumph of a creative artist: "What we sell is not a share in a business, but a view of the Elysian Fields." Bernie Madoff could not have said it better.
A shifty prospector, played with gleeful disdain for moral constraints by Armin Shimerman (perhaps best known for "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine"), soon convinces the president and his crony plutocrats that there's oil to be plundered from underneath Paris — and the riches to be made from it far outweigh the well-being of a lowly populace.
The salvation of the city rests with the title character, Countess Aurelia (Deborah Strang), a throwback to Belle Époque-era gentility whose "madness" lies in her refusal to embrace the ethical decay of her privileged peers. Strang's tour de force performance evokes imperious eccentricity worthy of the late Hermione Gingold, inflecting the countess' every word with crystal-clear meaning and intent.
With the aid of some dotty like-minded matrons (Jill Hill, Susan Angelo, Veralyn Jones), a canny junk dealer (George Villas), and various downtrodden townsfolk, the countess turns the tables on the greedy 1-percenters and their enablers, finding time along the way to play matchmaker to a would-be suicide (Rafael Goldstein) and a maiden (Leslie Lank). Or, as the countess puts it, "Nothing is ever so wrong in this world that a sensible woman can't set it right in the course of an afternoon."
The imaginatively staged and choreographed resolution may be only a wish fulfillment fantasy, but it shows why this classic fable resonates most vividly in times of beleaguered idealism.
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‘The Madwoman of Chaillot’
Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena
When: Runs in repertory through Nov. 11 (see website for schedule)
Info: (626) 356-3100 Ext. 1 or www.anoisewithin.org
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
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