Maurice Maeterlinck was one of those huge figures who went from omnipresence to obscurity in what seems like the blink of an eye. He’s best remembered for writing the play that ended up as the libretto of Debussy’s great opera, Pelleas et Melisande (though silent movie fans may also know Maurice Tourneur’s lovely 1918 film based on another play, The Blue Bird). Cutting Ball Theater has been presenting a rare opportunity to see Maeterlinck’s original play of Pelleas and Melisande. I went to one of the previews, several Sunday afternoons ago, during a suffocating hot spell, which is strange to remember now that it's so cold.
The story is pretty much as in the opera, though of course it’s not shaped by Debussy’s music. There is ambient music in this production, provided by Cliff Caruthers, which works very well towards helping to create the play’s dislocated atmosphere. Things are not quite what they seem, but not always in the way we think, and if that sounds a bit puzzling and obscurely meaningful, then you’re getting the picture. Rob Melrose, who also did the new translation of the play, sets the work on a long, stripped-down platform that runs down the middle of the theater, with seats banked on either side (not the usual configuration at this theater).
There are dark metal sheets hanging down splashed with pale green paint that conjures up leaves, or maybe moss in a cave, or streaked castle walls, though the medievalism is kept to a minimum, as are the props generally – the actors mime holding objects, and Melisande’s famously long hair is evoked and imagined rather than displayed; for the scene in which Pelleas hangs on to Melisande’s suddenly unloosened hair, the actors lie on the platform, which we now visualize as a vertical wall rather than a horizontal floor, and he reaches up towards where the hair would be, hanging on to what we imagine is there.
The costumes are mostly contemporary, but evocative of other times and places. Melisande’s costumes usually bare her arms, so she looks different from and fragile next to the other characters. Pelleas wears a dark ski vest with a row of trees subtly silhouetted across the bottom, over a dark green T-shirt (I actually sat there wondering where they’d gotten that shirt, which I really liked; it looked like something you could get from Eddie Bauer, but it also worked as a costume evoking the outdoors where he and Melisande meet).
There are lots of elements that seem obviously “symbolic” – the sun, the night, the sea, the caves, journeying, her hair, the ring she loses – but much is left suggestively unexplained, and the play’s power comes from the shifting meanings and general instability of the symbols, which always seem about to collapse into dream-land or other subconscious realms.
Obviously there’s a danger here of being overly precious and vague, which Melrose and the actors successfully avoid. As I’ve indicated, the more obviously fairy-tale or antique elements, though not eliminated, are handled so that the story doesn’t become merely picturesque or old-time storybookish. Caitlyn Louchard does an outstanding job suggesting the indrawn, haunted Melisande, without lapsing into annoying feyness; you feel Melisande is being as direct as she can be, or can allow herself to be.
But it was the performances of the brothers Golaud (Derek Fischer) and Pelleas (Jonathan Schell) that gave me a pleasant surprise because – I can’t think of any other way to put this – given the temptations of the material, they were surprisingly masculine. They could easily have been vaguely gauzy fairy-tale princes; these seemed like actual guys you might actually meet, struggling with love and jealousy and loss. Yet there was enough strangeness in them – a suggestion of willful blindness or hurtful sensitivity – to provide the instability as well as the strength the script calls for. (Among the rest of the cast I also particularly liked Paul Gerrior as Arkel, the ruler of exhausted wisdom.)
Maeterlinck supposedly lost favor when the theater turned towards “realism,” but this production made me ponder the slippery nature not just of "realism" but of reality. The performance is about an hour and forty minutes, with no intermission to break the mood, and the somber heat, heavy and suffocating and unusual for the time of year, began to seem like one of the play’s elements of definite but not quite definable significance. Heading home on the train afterwards, I was trapped in front of a man practically shouting into his cell phone, telling his friend over and over that Tricia had discovered photos that Tasha had taken of herself wearing one of Tricia’s nightgowns, posed on Tricia’s bed – which I assumed she shared with this man, but maybe not; it really wasn’t clear how the three were related – was Tasha an ex-lover? a daughter? a sister? Whatever was going on there, it was clear this man felt that what might in other circumstances be a minor incident (borrowing another woman's outfit, sitting on her bed) was in this case freighted with deep emotion and constituted a shocking betrayal. I was still under the spell of the performance, and this incident, right down to the strange similarity in the names of the two women, seemed like a forgotten episode from what I had just seen, and like a validation of Maeterlinck’s method.
The show runs through November 27, so you have a few more chances to catch it. Get tickets here.