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Majestic Malevolence 

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THE VISIT

Goodman Theatre

THE BLACK TULIP

Center Theater

"I'll even attack you or eat you whole / Down in the dark my bone mills roll / Porridge for my porridge bowl." --from "The Minotaur's Song" by Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band

There was an article in Spy magazine some time back in which the author toted up approximately what the American life-style costs in terms of human lives. How many miners are going to get black lung so you can heat your house. How many truckers are going to get totaled bringing your meat to market. That sort of thing. I don't remember the details, but the overall conclusion was pretty clear: lots of people are dying all the time for your comfort.

This isn't news--but then it isn't something we go around acknowledging either. Everybody knows life's built on bones. Some of us are even willing to admit that the bone pile gets bigger as you head west and north, toward the industrialized nations. America in particular needs lots of bones. Still, as long as they're not our bones, we're willing to bear up and keep quiet. Better to gnaw than to be gnawed.

The late Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt chose not to keep quiet. He dug up the bones, cleaned them off, and put them on display in The Visit.

A satirical fable written in 1956, The Visit constructs a mechanism, a sort of mousetrap for catching humanity at its self-serving worst. Well, a billionairess by the name of Claire Zachanassian does the actual construction: returning to her little hometown of Guellen after decades spent nurturing her rage along with her fortune, Madame Claire offers the townsfolk a billion dollars--if only they'll agree to murder their leading and most beloved citizen, Anton Schill, who knocked her up and betrayed her in his randy youth.

The Guellenites are appropriately indignant over Madame Claire's grotesque offer, but they're also peculiarly vulnerable to it: While the rest of the country enjoys great prosperity, their factories have been shut down. Nobody's working. The trains don't bother stopping at the Guellen station anymore. So even though their moral sense says No, no, no to Madame Claire, the townsfolk's coarse bread and tatty clothes are telling them, Don't be an idiot.

And gradually the bread and clothes make their point. Reassured at first by his fellow citizens' expressions of solidarity, Anton eventually notices that everybody--his wife and kids included--has started buying nice shoes, smart coats, real butter, fine brandy, Turkish cigarettes. On credit. It dawns on him that they're borrowing against Madame Claire's reward. That is, against his bones. Anton amounts to a reverse Jesus: the far from sin-free offering--the lamb of Moloch, as it were--whose sacrificial death will guarantee economic salvation for Guellen. Today, you can imagine him promising the town, shalt thou be with me in Neiman-Marcus.

Durrenmatt tells his story with the detachment of an absurd god, enjoying the inevitable. He gives us no moral scheme--just a set of givens and a problem. Like geometry. No heroes or villains--just a system of interesting counterbalances. Like physics. His Madame Claire is a perfect monster of revenge, as ferocious and obsessive and merciless as Medea; but like Medea, she has a clear-cut case and can't be dismissed. Her proposition is destiny itself: the mere mention of it guarantees its fulfillment, human nature being what it is. There's never any doubt as to whether the Guellenites will follow through; the only serious question is how they'll justify it to themselves. Under what rationalization they'll hide the bones.

David Petrarca has already directed five shows in the Goodman Theatre Studio. The Visit marks his debut on the main stage, and he seems to have construed the project as a grand hommage to the current masters of the hall: Robert Falls and Frank Galati. Falls's influence is suggested by the outsize look of the piece, the epic set by Paul Steinberg; Galati seems to show up in the luxurious pacing and the succession of painterly, surreal images. Though this Visit is very funny--especially in its wry visual jokes: the Tweedledum/Tweedledee castrati who form part of Madame Claire's retinue; the new yellow shoes that show up on the townsfolk's feet as, one by one, they succumb to Madame Claire's temptation--it's not played for laughs merely, but for the Last Laugh. Underneath the satire, The Visit is what you might call a dialectical tragedy, and Petrarca is careful to infuse it with a majestic and ineluctable malevolence.

And speaking of majestic and ineluctable malevolence, Rosalind Cash is the quintessence of same as Madame Claire. Yet she never gives us the chance to caricature Claire as a bitch. The woman may be a monster, but, like Grendel's mother, she's a monster with a genuine gripe. Also like Grendel's mom, she's stunning in her sheer implacability.

Josef Sommer is disconcertingly laid back, on the other hand, as the object of all that implacability. His Schill displays an equanimity that makes his hypocrisy seem all the more slimy in the beginning, his resignation all the more haunting at the end. Linda Stephens, Colin Stinton, and Steve Pickering are all exceedingly creepy as various types of turning worms.

What's somewhat more than creepy, of course, is the ugly way in which Durrenmatt's fable applies to America's recent conduct in the world. Seduced by nothing more than the promise of a few more years' worth of cheap oil, we went ahead and wiped out 150,000 Iraqi soldiers. Porridge for our porridge bowl. Let none of us think we live anywhere but in Guellen.

A quick note on The Black Tulip: It's awful. A ludicrously funny sort of awful, sure--but awful just the same. A new musical by Tracy Friedman and Brian Lasser--based on a historical romance by Alexandre Dumas pere about political struggles and advanced horticulture in 17th-century Holland--The Black Tulip is pretty much epitomized by a song called "My Flowers Are My Friends," in which the hero sings, apparently without irony, "A flower never laughs at you, or points at you, or snickers."

While this observation may be accurate as far as it goes--well, it just doesn't go very far, and a whole evening's worth of similarly short-stemmed lyrics loses its campy appeal real fast. Of the cast, only Jeff Talbott survives, smuggling himself out of the show disguised as Groucho Marx.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.

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