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Thérèse Raquin by Elyse Sommer

If dead men could talk would Emile Zola praise or damn the play Neil Bell has fashioned from his 1867 novel about a young woman jolted out of loveless marriage to her sickly cousin by an affair that leads her and her lover to commit a horrible crime of passion? The question is natural when you consider that Zola and playwright Bell had very different stylistic proclivities. Zola was a proponent of realism, while Bell is more inclined towards poetic surrealism. Since a dead man rising from his watery grave figures importantly in the story, the image of Zola's reaction from the great beyond also comes to mind almost automatically.

I think Zola would be surprised at this Thérèse Raquin but not unhappy with it, mainly because Bell has managed the seemingly impossible feat of beautifully blending Zola's naturalism with his own more fantastical style.

Zola wanted to present an almost scientific analysis of what happens when a man and woman's sexual natures are fully unleashed while Bell wanted to add more of a human dimension to the fateful boat ride their passion launches. For all the differences in the two writers' approaches to this gothic horror story, Bell succeeds not only in blending his own often Brechtian touches into Zola's story, but remains true to its basic intent. This being the end of the Twentieth Century, he has also been able to give full reign to the passion that Zola could only imply in his day.

While, I can't compare CSC's Thérèse Raquin with versions of this adaptation performed in other parts of the country, I can't imagine a richer more imaginative theatrical experience than the one Director David Esbjornson, (also the CSC's artistic director), has given us. To start with the jewel in the crown, we have Elizabeth Marvel giving the performance of her career as Thérèse. She has captured her character's loneliness and yearning and is absolutely mesmerizing when aroused to feelings she never knew existed. Her descent into the hell of her own making is equally riveting, as are the moments of humor she wrests from the overarching melodrama. Excellent as her line delivery is, her face and unspoken gestures (as they were when she played a minor role in Taking Sides -- our review) are often as telling as her words.

Marvel's powerful performance is ably supported by the rest of the cast. The two men in her life are far more dynamic than the characters described in the novel. Sean Haberle's Laurent is equally convincing as the irresistible and later tortured lover. Todd Weeks gives Camille, the husband, just the right touch of poignancy to keep him from being a totally unsympathetic whiner. Beth Dixon's Madame Raquin stumbles a bit before the intermission, but gains strength and stature during the second half. Clement Fowler, Ed Hodson, Steven Ratazzi and Angela Reed contribute enormously to successfully carrying off the demands of the surreal "chorus"--moving in and out of the parlor where they come to play endless games of dominos with the Raquins.

Also deserving several rounds of applause is the physical production. Narelle Sissons' set, beautifully lit by Christopher Akerlind, at once captures the claustrophobic life from which Thérèse explodes and the play's numerous metaphors such as the dark boxes of the dreary shop and the river. Claustrophobic though it is, the set also allows the actors to move beyond the dark central room, to the outside where the light is bright, leaves fall and the river can be seen and touched. Particularly notable too is the way set props are moved around; for example, chairs and table with rollers cleverly maneuver the whole "chorus" on and off the stage and the bed where marital frustration and extra-marital joys unfold metamorphoses into a boat. Kay Voyce's costume design rounds out the praiseworthy production values. Well, no, not completely. There are also the sounds, mostly created by the actors, which play a major mood setting and sustaining role.

If you're looking for something very French from this play with its accented title, you're not going to find this to have a particularly Gallic flavor. However, that's hardly a serious drawback. This is, after all a psychological tale that is not place dependent for its authenticity.

The performances are followed by a discussion. If you can schedule your time to stay for an extra half hour, you'll find it enlightening.

A play by Neal Bell, from the 1867 novel by Emile Zola
Directed by David Esbjornson
Starring Elizabeth Marvel
With Beth Dixon, Clement Fowler, Sean Haberle, Ed Hodson, Steven Ratazzi, Angela Reed and Todd Weeks
Classic Stage Company (CSC), 136 E. 13th St (212) 677-4210
10/21/97-11/23/97 (Opening 10/29)
Reviewed by elybio.html Elyse Sommer 11/02
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