Imagine getting fired from your job and sent by train to an enormous estate where an eccentric duchess greets you in hysterics, brings you to a surreal park where ivy grows on taxicabs, and then enjoins you to assume the identity of a peculiar yet gorgeous ballerina who died two years ago. Now imagine that the aristocrat is your aunt and your only love is this deceased ballerina named Leocadia whom you knew for merely three days. These are the respective plights of Amanda and the Princethe central characters around which Jean Anouilh's nostalgic world circles in his Leocadia. University Theater opened its thoughtful production of this play Wednesday night in the First Floor Theatre of the Reynolds Club under the direction of Peter O'Keefe.
The young, pretty Amanda enters the extravagant home of the sixty-something, but still sprightly, duchess to open the show in enjoyable confusion. Zarina Feinman, playing the haughty aristocrat, displays fine versatility as she vacillates between incessant, disturbing laughter at Amanda's expense and a nerve-wracking discussion of serious matters. The peculiarity of the situation is heightened by a well-executed device in which a character will exit the room in mid-conversation, allowing his listener to contemplate the meaning of the discussion in an uncomfortable silence, and will then return a moment later to pick up where he left off. Later, Amanda utilizes this practice herself, hinting at her ability to adapt to and manipulate an odd environment.
In the course of the play, it becomes clear that this skill is essential to Amanda's character. She is an outsider dragged into a very closed environment to fulfill an impossible role in the Prince's perpetual fantasy; he spends his life in an extreme effort to relive those three days with his ill-fated lover. Fleming Ford succeeds in displaying Amanda's growth from the duchess's puppet to an active and original participant in the Prince's life, while retaining the qualities that separate her from the blue blood's deluded circle. Despite Amanda's capacity to maneuver in such a strange setting, she is still slightly intimidated by the daunting presence of the brooding Prince lost in a miserable dream. Rob Gilmour manages to keep the Prince grounded in a solid emotional reality, thereby helping the audience believe that Amanda may penetrate his desperate condition.
Ultimately, Anouilh poses the following question: is it possible to reclaim the past as we remember it, and if so, is it worthwhile? Amanda, The Duchess, and the Prince embody three responses to this philosophical inquiry, which they assume to be distinct. As the play progresses, each answer increases in similarity to the others. Amanda's frustration with stepping outside of reality, the Duchess's exhaustion with upholding the Prince's charade and tolerating his depression, and the Prince's uncertainty over the truth of his relationship with Leocadia all lead to a disgust with themselves and their struggle to hold onto the past. The central premise and main characters of Leocadia, with the help of O'Keefe's very well developed, dynamic ensemble, attack the matter in a pointed manner. However, the piece includes periphery elements that may distract from an otherwise coherent work. The character of Gaston, played by Adeoye Mabogunje, is silently omnipresent, curiously observing the action occurring around him on stage and sometimes stealing the focus from intense, key events. His purpose and the role he plays in the story are both quite elusive. Sarah Tupper skillfully underscores the show playing the violin, cello, and a Native American wind flute, but there are times when her music gels rather clumsily with Mike Castello's sound design and unintentionally overshadows the actors' efforts.
The most striking technical aspect is certainly Sarah Vogel's set design. Flat trees hang from the ceiling, subtly creating sectioned spaces in the proscenium configuration of the First Floor Theatre's black box. Among the trees, picture frames are suspendedsome empty, some filled with elegant paintings and photos. The frames seem to represent the memories of the Prince and those memories not yet created. O'Keefe takes full advantage of the entire stage but stumbles into some inevitable difficulties in sightlines. These problems are countered with very clever scene transitions. Anouilh's text flows through a variety of settings, from a front hall entrance, to a dining room, to a bar, and includes odd objects like the aforementioned ivy-covered taxi. The latter is the best example of O'Keefe's knack for resourcefully transforming simple items into visual treats. A table covered with a painted cloth composes the cab that Derek Brockbank and Diana Konopka playfully construct with a joyful, committed energy that does not permit the audience to question the car's existence.
In his November 12th Dear Diary column, the Chicago Maroon's very own Pete Beatty pithily summed up his view on the current state of the dramatic arts, writing, "Theater sucks." O'Keefe, a self-proclaimed avid reader of Beatty, took umbrage at this brash comment and has set out to prove it wrong with his creative direction of Leocadia. Indeed, O'Keefe and his University Theater staff have successfully produced a delightfully perplexing exploration into a peculiar aristocratic family's quest to freeze time and reclaim the past. If Beatty can scrounge up the $7.00 for a ticket, he can go eat his shorts and see Leocadia on Friday and Saturday night at 8:00 pm in the First Floor Theatre of the Reynolds Club.