nytheatre.com review by Shelley Molad
July 6, 2009
Therese Raquin is the title of a novel written in 1867 by the French writer Emile Zola. Widely considered to be the highlight of Zola's career and a major work of Naturalism, it has been adapted for the stage, opera, television, and cinema. The masterfully constructed story revolves around a young woman (Therese Raquin) of French and Algerian descent, who, after her mother dies, is left in the care of her aunt and raised alongside her sickly cousin Camille, with whom she is arranged to marry. Oppressed by these circumstances, Therese, despite her beauty, youth, and health, is miserably restless and dissatisfied with life—that is, until she meets Laurent, an alluring painter and childhood friend of Camille, with whom she begins a torrid affair.
Potomac Theater Project, a company originally based in Washington, D.C. and now in residence at Atlantic Stage 2, presents a bare bones production of Therese Raquin, adapted for the stage by Neal Bell. With nothing on stage but two wooden chairs, director Jim Petosa utilizes a strong ensemble of eight actors and Bell's sharp text to tell this dark and erotic tale.
As a whole, the play is well done, but the second half is more memorable than the first. At the start of the play, the relationships aren't fully developed or explored between Therese, Madame (her aunt), and Camille. Bell's adaptation is sparse but direct; every word is written to land like a spear, but there doesn't seem to be enough action in the first half to support the text. We repeatedly watch Therese sit and stare blankly at the river, which supposedly sings to her; she is visibly desperate, but it is not entirely clear why. In this first half, Camille is depicted as whiny, childish, and effeminate, and Madame is characterized by playful naivete and oblivion. Both seem to provide unwarranted comic relief, causing the audience to laugh in moments that I don't think are intended to be funny—ironic, yes, but not funny. As a result, their actions don't justify Therese's morose behavior. Lily Balsen, who plays Therese, has fun toying with Bell's language, but there isn't much evidence that she is suffering.
A huge fan of this play, which I had read prior to seeing this show, I hoped that Laurent's entrance might save the production and support its seething and erotic mood. Luckily, Laurent does provide the missing link and the play takes off in the right direction as soon as he and Therese begin their affair. What's captivating about Scott Janes, who plays Laurent, is that he allows the character's charm and sexuality to affect not only Therese but also Camille and Madame. In a scene where Laurent is painting Camille, he runs his brush against Camille's face while telling a titillating story about how he used the stroke of his brush to widen the legs of a nude woman he was painting. Camille shudders with uncomfortable pleasure, while Therese watches vicariously; the sexual energy that emanates from the three of them is quite affecting. Likewise, Madame develops a visible affection for Laurent when he kisses her on the lips; the irony of Camille and Madame's trusting relationship towards Laurent juxtaposed with the ravenous and clandestine sex scenes between Therese and Laurent is the most interesting development on stage.
There is a wonderful scene between Therese and Laurent when they meet by the river wearing masks, inebriated after a masquerade. In the guise of these masks, they toy with the idea of behaving as two innocent strangers who happen to have fallen for one another. Their conviction in the roles they put on begins as playfulness but dips into fierce passion, fear, and rage. This onslaught of madness is not far from what we'd expect from Macbeth or Lear.
The rest of the actors, who appear a few times on stage, mainly to play dominoes, provide nice stage pictures—but I would have liked to see more of them, perhaps during the scene transitions. The ensemble helps to create the mood and place, and I wanted to get a better sense of where and who these characters were in 19th century France.
The presence of Camille in the second half of the play is extremely eerie. Willie Orbison looks terrifically revolting—in one scene he gurgles up river water. After Madame has a stroke and sits motionless, occasionally blathering, upstage for the remainder of the play, she becomes an ominous presence and more interesting because it is the first time we see Helen Jean Arthur's dark side.
The play drags out at the very end and, as a result, is less powerful than it could be. But all in all, Potomac Theater Project's rendition of this classically morbid play is worth the trip, even if it's just to experience the risqué theatrics of Zola's infamous femme fatal.