On Theater: This 'Visit' is worth one

The chilling tragicomedy "The Visit," written in 1960 by Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, crosses the ocean to an American Rust Belt city in UC Irvine's electrifying revival, its theme of moral bankruptcy remaining virtually intact.

What would any dying town sacrifice for instant rejuvenation? Perhaps one human life? It's a compelling question artfully answered in director Jane Page's imagination-filled allegory calculated to stick with you long after you leave the university's Little Theatre.

The driving force of "The Visit" is one Claire Zachanassian, a former resident of the town — Gullen (meaning "liquid manure") in the original, Turdley in the UCI adaptation. She left in despair and degradation but married well and became a zillionaire. Now she holds the key to the city's rebirth, with one condition — she'll donate $1 billion upon the death of her old flame, now a humble shopkeeper, who wronged her so many years ago.

The merchant develops a case of galloping paranoia as his fellow townspeople begin to change their lifestyle, buying luxuries on credit in anticipation of a windfall. Will they kill their fellow Turdlian to achieve permanent opulence?

In the UCI production, notable for its energetic ensemble, tragedy is deftly blended with comedy as the town's citizens are introduced and begin preparing for a cushy lifestyle. Nearly everyone is decked out in new, expensive yellow shoes; cars and fur coats abound. Meanwhile, the shopkeeper feels the ever-increasing weight of the imaginary target on his back.

Portraying the domineering Claire (known as Clara in her youth) is Breanne Murphy, who superbly holds the town in her thrall. She's going through her seventh, eighth and ninth husbands (all played by Matt Koenig) during her visit and commands a retinue of servants, one of whom transports her in a rickshaw.

Murphy's sense of power is brilliantly portrayed, with just the right satirical touch to fit the mood of the production. It's known that she's physically artificial, and this comes to light in her final appearance with all her accouterments gone and barely recognizable — the reason unexplained.

Her onetime lover, now a nervous merchant, is a far less flamboyant character, but splendidly interpreted by Jacob Dresch on a more realistic level. He's staunchly supported by his bland wife (Hayley Palmer) and their two kids (Jeremy Woodbeck and Elyse Montoya) who, nevertheless, join the acquisitive throng.

Colin Nesmith has some solid moments as the city's mayor (whose godchildren are called Mickey and Minnie), while Connor Bond offers spiritual support as a priest (seems that everyone in Turdley is Catholic).

Particularly impressive is Rosie Brownlow as the school headmistress whose fervor increases the more alcohol she consumes. The town doctor (Lilian Wouter) and police officer (Zachary Houston) also figure prominently.

Urban decadence is beautifully conveyed by David Lepor's gritty railroad station setting, while Shigeru Yaji's costumes are suitably eye catching. Harsh lighting by Kristin Neu and booming sound effects from Mark Caspary round out the technical accomplishments.

Powerful drama interspersed with biting comedy is rare in the theater, but "The Visit" succeeds on both counts in this suspenseful and satirical production in UC Irvine.

*

Orange Coast College will present Bertolt Brecht's "The Threepenny Opera" this weekend and next in the college's Drama Lab Theatre. Peter Uribe is directing the musical, set in 1928 Berlin and featuring Mack the Knife.

Curtain time is 7:30 p.m. for Friday and Saturday performances, with a 2:30 a.m. matinee this Sunday. Tickets are $10 and $6 in advance, $12 and $8 at the door and may be reserved by calling (713) 432-5880, ext. 1.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "The Visit"

Where: Little Theatre, UC Irvine

When: Closing performances at 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $11 to $15

Information: (949) 824-2787 or drama.arts.uci.edu

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