There’s a point in The Madwoman of Challiot where Countess Aurelia finally learns that the world isn’t exactly the wonderful, beautiful place that she had envisioned.
Dark forces are at work. The best interests of the masses are disregarded by the few.
It’s a telling moment and one that Kassidy Klinesmith and the Manteca High School drama department pull off with precision – that shocking moment when youthful innocence and naiveté go by the wayside and you’re left with that sink-or-swim feeling as you wade through foreign feelings.
But what makes this unique vehicle by French playwright Jean Giraudoux redeeming is the way in which it blends real-world themes with a timeless sense of whimsy and wonder that relies heavily on underhanded humor to tie everything together.
This isn’t your average high school drama production.
At the core of the story is a group of greedy business tycoons that, on the advice of a prospector, plans to drastically transform the landscape of Paris in an attempt to bring massive oil deposits to the surface for a healthy profit.
Mike Rood starts the show as “The President” – the win-at-all-costs industrialist who brags about his business acumen and simply has no time for the bohemian café-types that add festivity to an otherwise mundane sidewalk café. Right out of the gate you want this character to fail and can tell that his nefarious plot will only turn one of the world’s greatest cities into a vast wasteland if he succeeds.
Not that he cares. He just wants to impress “The Baron” – his guest – and get him to agree to take a seat on his Board of Directors.
By the time Aurelia (Klinesmith) finally enters the scene, it’s apparent that this twisted plot has some serious momentum behind it and a group of Parisian eccentrics seem unlikely to be the ones that intervene.
But something happens when “The Ragpicker” – played by Mia Holbrook – breaks the tough news to The Countess that the world can be a cold place inhabited by cold people. Everybody and everything, she says, has its price.
“These days Countess, even the cabbage has its pimp.”
It’s a telling line, and one that sets up the second act – a comedy-laden exchange between Aurelia, Madame Constance, The Madwoman of Passy and Madame Gabrielle, The Madwoman of St. Sulpice. Together the trip of Klinesmith, Elizabeth Matthews and Evelyn Sommerfeld devise a plan to banish the evil businessmen for good – possibly resulting in their death – in a delightful turn of events that restores the essence of humanity and allows the world to spin properly upon its axis.
In a sense the play is somewhat simple – following the basic dramatic rules outlined by Aristotle and requiring very little suspended belief on behalf of the viewer. But the thematic elements, as period-specific as they are, transcend Paris in the early 20th century and could just as easily be applied today.
Easier material was available for Dawn Coyan’s Intermediate and Advanced Theater students at Manteca High when they began this project, and for that alone they deserve four stars.
So grab your beret and your baguette and get ready to be transformed. Paris is waiting.