The action opens in the Swiss town of Güllen (literally, “manure”) which has suffered years of privation due to its major industries, especially a pencil factory, having closed down. The citizens are desperate to save their livelihoods, and they see an opportunity when they learn that a woman who grew up there will make her first visit back in many years. She is enormously wealthy, and as we quickly learn upon meeting Claire Zachanassian (Julie Layton), also eccentric. She arrives on an earlier train than that which the town plans to meet with a big ceremony. They are caught unprepared when she stops the train she is on by pulling the emergency brake. Her entourage includes a pet black panther, her fiancé, Pedro (Kevin Boehm), her butler Bobby (Bob Harvey), Mike (C. Blaine Adams) and Max (Eric White), her porters (one of the things they carry is Claire herself in a sedan chair). She has also brought a coffin and two very odd black-veiled figures we don’t meet until later. Soon she offers a billion marks, half to revive the town’s industries and half to be divided equally among the citizenry. There is, of course, a catch, and that condition drives the rest of the play.
Dressed head to toe in blood red, even her long, bright hair matches, Claire is an odd vision. Is she a demon? We learn she was a prostitute, a profession associated with red, and that she left town at 17, pregnant out of wedlock, a “scarlet” woman. At first, she seems delighted to greet her old flame Anton Schill (R. Travis Estes). At one point the two old lovers have a scene reminiscent of Hermoine Gingold and Maurice Chevalier’s, “I Remember it Well” from Gigi. Anton recalls their romantic past and she corrects him on the details. It is a comic bit, but her observations on his inattention soon become indicative of the cruel end of the relationship.
In his director’s note, Gary F. Bell writes that he is using “bold, representational movement derived from Meyerhold technique” instead of realistic movement and blocking. So, the audience is further removed from the characters by their artificial body language (for example, the Station Master played by Stephen Peirick, walks and gestures like he has emerged from a cuckoo clock, as do the townspeople who first enter the stage through two doors in a faux stone wall that is the backdrop). Costumes by Alexandra Quigley are fashioned in drab colors but with interesting designs reminiscent of fairy tale characters. Later, color is added to shoes and accessories as the people’s poverty eases. Makeup is also stylized with some characters wearing Kabuki style white face paint with exaggerated eyebrows, fake moustaches and so on.
Gender expectations are upended, as well. The town Burgomaster (mayor) is male, but played by a woman, Jan Niehoff. She is dressed as a man and wears a penciled moustache. The Doctor (Melissa Harris) also looks male, but Sarajane Alverson as The Teacher looks like a woman, yet we learn she is not, and there are several others playing their opposite sex. I don’t recall that any men play women, however. All of this serves to both heighten our awareness of the issues at hand by forcing us to work harder than we are accustomed to doing as an audience, but also to distance us from the concerns of people who seem like dolls or robots, thus are objectified. However, this is not the case with Anton Schill. He, too, is made up with some exaggeration, but he seems all too human and the moral ambiguity he displays is always right in front of us. He is like Oedipus, in the sense that his actions are the engine of the town’s disintegration, although unlike Oedipus, he was conscious of doing wrong. There are hints of Brecht’s absurdist humor and Chekhov’s pathos, which was also, by that playwright’s own reckoning, meant to be funny.
A cast of 17 play a total of 31 roles without changing much except a prop or two. The set includes the aforementioned wall which has a cityscape behind it and a sign up above that orients us to where we are in the action by projection of locations: the station, the forest, the Burgomaster’s office, Schill’s general store (everything from cigarettes and schnapps to butter and eggs and notions), and a barn which was once a trysting place for Claire and Anton. The two are written to be in their sixties, but age is not mentioned, and of course, Layton and Estes look as if they’re in early middle age.
Claire has been married eight times and is heading for her ninth, but her money came from her first husband, an elderly man who fell in love with her and rescued her from prostitution. She is out of the action for a while, but still visible, perched on a balcony and watching Act II as an audience member herself (or perhaps a god) flanked by Pedro and Bobby. She has told the impoverished petitioners who reject her condition for giving the money that she will “wait,” and she does. She sees the people indulging themselves in every manner of luxury, though they do all seem particularly interested in shoes, using and abusing credit, a familiar problem to us today.
The creative team behind the scenes includes Janet E. Howe, assistant director/dramaturg; Jay V. Hall, set designer; Justin Been, stage manager and sound designer—who does an excellent job with the musical choices; and Tyler Duenow, lighting designer, who has outdone himself here. Friday night also had an assist from the weather gods who brought claps of thunder and bolts of lightning at the climax of the action. I wonder if they could get that for every performance because it was a great effect.
There are so many possible ways to read this play—as a commentary on the Nazi mentality, an examination of materialism (“Wealth only has meaning when benevolence comes with it,” the Teacher argues); moral judgment (“The world made me into a whore,” Claire asserts); political influence, the unpredictable shifts in public opinion, and more. Yet what I saw was an examination of the human heart and how easily it can be broken forever, and that love is not the panacea less clear-eyed interpreters than Dürrenmatt would have us believe. The human condition is essentially tragic, but that in itself, is so absurd as to be comic.
The Visit is a tour-de-force for Stray Dog Theatre, which seems to get more ambitious all the time. Beginning with the wonderfully realized Master Class, the company has put on a wide variety of productions, and this show, the last of the 8th season, is also the best of it—beautifully acted and masterfully interpreted by the director. If you go, prepare to be there a while, as the three acts and two intermissions take up nearly three hours, but it is time well spent, and I highly recommend a visit to The Visit.
NOTE: The play was translated by Maurice Valency. Others in the cast not mentioned in the text of this review are Katie Puglisi, Colleen M. Backer, C.E. Fifer, Ryan E. Glosemeyer, Olivia Light, Shane P. Mullen, and Jenni Ryan, all of whom add their considerable talents to the proceedings.
The Visit runs through June 25. You may go to www.straydogtheatre.org for information. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 FM radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT