nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
November 12, 2005
In Hilda, an extraordinary play in the Act French Festival, French novelist Marie Ndiaye demonstrates the many ways in which power destroys. Ndiaye accomplishes this in both blatant and nuanced ways, and she is incredibly artful as she does so.
In the story, Mrs. Lemarchand, a liberal, moneyed woman, wants to hire Hilda as her maid and nanny. She has never met Hilda, but she has heard that she is beautiful and caring, and she loves her name. She wants to extend her largesse by offering Hilda social and financial opportunities. Mrs. Lemarchand negotiates with Hilda’s husband, Frank, a carpenter; indeed, she browbeats him into accepting the position for Hilda—a first step toward his indebtedness to her and the one step that propels him into a life which he neither wants nor from which he can extricate himself.
For hiring Hilda is not enough for lonely, desperate Mrs. Lemarchand. She trails Hilda as she cares for the children, dresses her in expensive hand-me-downs, parades her for her friends to see, and eventually possesses and destroys her—all in an effort to make Hilda love her. This happens incrementally, without violence, and in the name of liberal generosity. It is appalling to hear the lengths to which Mrs. Lemarchand goes on behalf of Hilda. In her eagerness to give Hilda one of her dresses, Mrs. Lemarchand decides that Hilda is not quite clean enough to wear it. She insists that Hilda shower immediately and then try it on. Taking it further into the absurd, Ndiaye eventually has Mrs. Lemarchand bathing Hilda regularly. She discovers lovely beauty marks on the backs of Hilda’s knees and during a dinner party Mrs. Lemarchand invites her guests to examine them. I wanted to rescue Hilda. But Hilda, so ever-present, never actually appears. It is her sister, Corinne, played by Brandy Burre, who arrives late in the play to ostensibly save the day.
Ellen Karas plays the demanding role of Mrs. Lemarchand with inner determination. In a 90-minute production with no intermission, she is required to press her case for Hilda roughly 90% of the time. She begins with an open, chatty, and cheerful disposition that clearly defines her as a woman of position talking to someone without rank. Subtly, she moves into desperate longing for something she craves and will have. Finally, she gives her character a desperate destructive force as she calculates how to keep Hilda for her very own. Dressed in a bold royal blue sheath (designed by costumer David F. Draper) and a single strand of pearls, against Donald Eastman’s monochromatic set, Karas commands the attention of the audience and of the antihero, Frank.
Frank, ably played by Michael Earle, is an equally demanding role as he reacts to Mrs. Lemarchand’s diatribe with a full range of facial expressions, only occasionally getting a word in edgewise. He enters with his carpentry box, expecting to make repairs, but instead receives a pathologically fixated tirade from Mrs. Lemarchand on his wife, Hilda, and the Pygmalion-like aspirations she has for her. Frank stands up to Mrs. Lemarchand. But in the world that Ndiaye has created, this is not enough to spar with Mrs. Lemarchand’s psychological manipulations.
In this tightly-wound play, small gestures such as trading dollars for work or bringing a cup of coffee, become events of great magnitude, power shifting ever so slightly from one character to the other. Credit goes to Erika Rundle for a translation that is nimble and nuanced. Indeed, it does not seem like a translation at all. Each of the seven or so scenes has at least one powerful reversal, and the audience can only watch with a sinking heart as Frank, a respectful man who values what he has, loses ground. Earle gives Frank solidity and common sense, making him someone with whom the audience can identify. But, power has nothing to do with common sense, and in this case it consumes both the powerful and powerless.
Eastman has created a set as strong as the protagonist. It is so prominent it is nearly a fourth character. The profile of a bare staircase stands centerstage in stark relief. There is no banister to soften the geometric lines. Rather, it rises to the ceiling and appears to be a staircase to nowhere. The stage, gorgeous in its stark simplicity, nearly shimmers. With Nancy Schertler’s sumptuous lighting, the stage draws attention even before Mrs. Lemarchand makes her startling entrance. The set is so pristine that, at one point, even the audience sympathizes with Mrs. Lemarchand—if only for a second—when she refuses to let Frank in the door, because his wounded hand is dripping with blood. Blood in this room, on this carpet?
Carey Perloff directs with the eye of a perfectionist. The pace moves steadily, the pauses are just right, and the important reversals pack a punch. Make no mistake. This is not a 90-minute monologue. All three characters play a critical role in trying to gain control of their lives. But, there is no stopping this giant snowball. It will stop only when it flattens everything in its path. Thank God for the Fourth Wall.