May 1, 2012

Love among the nuptial ruins

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live in the aftermath of an ugly divorce, the Salomee Speelt incarnation of author Marguerite Duras’ play La Musica, translated from the original French by Alice Austen, will be able to satisfy your morbid curiosities. Directed by Noemi Schlosser, the play pointedly conveys the complex, acute pain associated with broken vows and the disappointment of marriage.

La Musica is the tale of a separated couple who meet by chance on the eve of their divorce in the lobby of the hotel where they once lived together. Here the former husband and wife, simply named Him (John Gray) and Her (Elizabeth Laidlaw), unpack their memories, both happy and hellish, of their time together. Jealousies and infidelities are revealed as the couple realizes that no matter how deep their passion for each other once was, their individual emotional weaknesses doomed their marriage from the start.

Noemi Schlosser, the director of La Musica, understands well the palpable chemistry two actors can create onstage—it’s a phenomenon no amount of film editing could mimic. Her staging shows her grasp of her art form’s singular strength. The play is performed in the salon of the Alliance Française, with the audience seated on opposite sides of a space between a grand piano and a cluster of velvet couches. As the actors move around, watching their pained conversation can feel awkward and intrusive, as if you’re eavesdropping on a private dispute. At times, the tension grows so heated that you feel it’s improper to even look at the couple.

The extreme intimacy of the setting may have been Schlosser’s objective, but the specific blocking is at times a serious imposition on the viewers. When a stage is directly in front of the audience, it is easy to focus your vision on the actors and become completely absorbed in a play. However, when half of the audience is directly facing you in a small setting, it is difficult to focus fully on the play. It becomes distracting to have to constantly crane your head as actors move from left to right, and it is hard to see one actor’s response to the other’s words when they are standing on opposite sides of the stage.

Elizabeth Laidlaw and John Gray give subtle performances, which could be due to the fact that there’s no need to overact when the audience is within spitting distance. Their interactions are characterized by weird juxtapositions as their exchanges oscillate from giddiness to passive aggression to near hatred, which makes the play that much more emotionally potent. Laidlaw channels sarcasm and remorse well. Gray’s constant deadpan demeanor is also striking. At one point, he tells his ex of his former desire to kill her; at another, he tenderly strokes her arm as he tells her to va se faire foutre (a rather unsavory insult, pardon his French). Their dynamic is a strange but convincing portrayal of two people who can’t seem to get over each other, yet are clearly ill-matched. It’s a heartbreaking hour, in which you watch as a couple’s destroyed relationship crumbles even more.