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A CurtainUp Review

The Misunderstanding/Le Malentendu

> The Ubu Rep is one of those repertory companies that's housed in a nondescript office building, but there's nothing nondescript about this company's mission of acquainting Americans with works by contemporary French playwrights. What's more the productions are usually presented in French as well as in English. The current offering The Misunderstanding/Le Malentendu by the Algerian born French Nobel Prize winning writer and thinker Albert Camus (1913-1960) is a case in point. It's cast of five made a near seamless transition from performing the play in French (from 2/3-08) and currently (to 2/22) in Stuart Gilbert's English translation.. It's hard enough to learn your lines in one language, the mind boggles at these actors' deft linguistic turnaround.

The play itself is something of a murder mystery: A prodigal son returns unrecognized, after years abroad, to an inn run by his mother and sister. He does not announce himself in the hope of having the women see the brother and son in the stranger. His plan fills his wife with foreboding. Rightly so since the women have been feathering their nest by killing guests for their money. Since he is a stranger who clearly has money, it looks as if he may well become their next victim.

However, as this isolated inn is a far cry from the peaceful oasis one expects such places to be, neither is this an ordinary mystery. Instead of Hercules Poirot to tie up all the loose ends, we have a mysterious elderly servant wandering wordlessly through a surreal landscape occupied by people giving vent to their darkest impulses. In short, this is not a whodunnit entertainment but a play that's just about as dark as it can get. As directed by Ubu Rep artistic director, Francoise Kourilsky, The Misunderstanding, never lets up on its unrelentingly gloomy vision of humanity gone amuck. To understand the subtext underlying the eery, murder at the inn mystery, you must go back to 1943 when the play was written.

It was a time when France was ruled by the Nazi-friendly Vichy government and many French citizens put their morals into storage in order to survive and, even worse, benefit from their fellow Frenchmen's misfortunes. French Jews instead of being seen as brothers became invisible victims and were in fact given up voluntarily. What's more, this lapse from human decency was followed by little or no regret and kept secret for two generations (until the Barby trial and another one currently in progress).

In the context of its origins and Camus' standing as a humanist thinker, The Misunderstanding's mystery is how a large segment of a civilized country could abandon their humanity? Martha's (Miriam Cyr) unredeemed criminality and her mother's (Jacqueline Bertrand) weary collaboration are revealed in a larger symbolic context. Watoku Ueno's expressionistic set with its eery lighting by Greg MacPherson reflects the dark landscape in which "the sky has no horizon" not just of the deserted inn where the plot unfolds, but of a country surrounded and occupied by forces of evil. Less obvious but equally symbolic are references to the nearby cathedral which supposedly draws tourists to the murdering women's hostelry (a stand-in for the many church officials who did not exercise their moral leadership?). In the end, even the silent old servant (Michel Moinot) is revealed as something more than a mysterious presence.

With the exception of Lee Godart who's rather stiff and unconvincing as Jan, the five member cast is excellent, with Myriam Cyr giving a powerhouse performance as Martha. As you've undoubtedly gathered, this is not a play for those seeking a light, entertaining theatrical experience. It's almost too somber for even those who thrive on uncompromising drama, but then that's why you'll find plays like this only in small theaters rather than those requiring large audiences to fill the house.

By Albert Camus
Directed by Francoise Kourilsky
Starring Myriam Cyr with Jacqueline Bertrand, Lee Godart, Michel Moinot and Tatiana Abbey.
Sets: Watoku Ueno
Costumes: Carol Ann Pelletier
Lighting: Greg MacPherson
Ubu Rep, 15 West 28th St., l (212/ 679-7562)
French version 2/04/98-2/08/98; English 2/11/98-2/22/98
Reviewed 2/09/98 by Elyse Sommer

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