Performance Review: The Cutting Ball Theater’s Production of “Pelleas and Melisande”

[Reviewed by Christopher Bernard]

PUT A SPELL ON YOU

Maurice Maeterlinck was to theater what Debussy was to music and Mallarmé to poetry: one of the first explorers of the infinite universe of the indirect, the oblique – “the mystery that lies … just out of sight” – called Symbolism, without which modernism and its enormous and still flourishing progeny would have been inconceivable.

His play “Pelleas and Melisande” has had the status of a legend since its premiere in 1892, influencing musicians like Sibelius, Schoenberg and Fauré, as well as playwrights, and forming the basis of Debussy’s only completed opera. The title, in fact, may be more familiar to music mavens than theater fans.

And yet, without Maeterlinck’s foray into a form of drama that hints and feints at the splendors and horrors of human life (rather than barreling at them, bare-knuckled, gritted-teethed and glaring), suggesting depths of meaning and feeling through a balance of fairy tale, melodrama and a kind of naturalism of the dream – thus turning the modern soul into its own bravest spectacle – the modern dramatic tradition that began with Strindberg and late Ibsen, and continued through the surrealists, the absurdists, Beckett, Bernhard, and Kushner, would have missed half a continent of human experience. And it would have lacked much of the courage and power, the audacity and imagination it has shown ever since.

Which makes one all the more grateful for the often magical and wondrous production of the play by The Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco. They have taken on the play’s considerable challenges of interpretation and emerged victorious, creating a spell that, once you have entered it, you may not want to leave.

The play’s storyline is simple enough, even slight: a tissue of allusions to fairy tales, folk tales and romance taking place in a nameless kingdom in a vaguely medieval era, following the plight of a young princess found in a dark forest by a middle-aged prince who bears her home and makes the mistake of marrying her when there is far more likely mate for her in the form of his own brother. What makes the play a masterpiece that, in the right hands, defeats the dangers of its own dating is the playwright’s approach: the oblique poetry, the elided psychology, the leaps in time, the dream-logic, the almost cinematic abruptness of scene changes. Maeterlinck’s means are sometimes too blunt or obvious (as in the many allusions to Rapunzel), but this production solves the problems thus caused by using, in ways one can only suspect the playwright would have applauded, indirect, “poetic” devices like pantomime rather than more “naturalistic” methods that might have broken the play’s delicate spell.

Indeed, throughout, director Rob Melrose wisely builds on the mysteries and obliqueness of the text, allowing the audience to dwell in its enchantment and never over-emphasizing either the romantic excesses or the peculiar psychology of the fairy-tale-like characters.

The small Taylor Street theater creates a warm intimacy. Most of the action takes place on a long, narrow platform with the audience seated along either side; a corner of the stage opens to a pool of water, water being both a potent symbol and a beautiful “objective correlative” of the world of the lovers, their passion and their fate. Precise and discreet lighting and a finely wrought web of music and sound perfect the mise-en-scène. The action is often, discreetly, choreographed, a ballet of gestures and brief tableaux.

But none of these efforts, beautifully worked out as they are, would be of any use without getting the acting right – and here the soul of the production goes from success to something more impalpably pure. Caitlyn Louchard’s Melisande is altogether admirable in a difficult role, built largely on reactions and silences, and her variety and sureness of touch make the lost princess entirely believable. Special kudos should also go to Paul Gerrior as Arkel, an old, king-like figure, whose sorrow is to be left at the end forlorn, with a baby in his arms, and his castle, with its surrounding forest of darkness and the poisoned lake beneath it, a mortuary. The supporting roles are also wrought with great sensitivity and care. Joshua Schell’s Pelleas and Derek Fischer’s Golaud are thoroughly worthy and avoid the pitfalls of sentimentality and melodrama the parts can easily slip into, though sometimes their brimming American “good health” in parts that need an evasive neuroticism to be completely convincing shows through despite their best efforts.

Gwyneth Richards’ two brief scenes (as Arkel’s wife and as head of the servants), not least because of a fine voice and meticulously gauged line-readings, were among the most memorable of a production filled with memorable moments.

The production is a triumph, though that sounds way too pompous for a piece of such intimacy and delicacy and grace. It’s a must-see for anyone in the Bay Area who cares about theater.

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Christopher Bernard is a San Francisco writer and founding editor of Caveat Lector magazine.

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