Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Good Title Masks a Missed Opportunity

The Radiant is a clever title for a play about Madame Marie Salomea Skłodowska-Curie, a brilliant and courageous woman who discovered the element radium and the science of radioactivity, and was the first person to win two Nobel prizes.  Unfortunately the play by Shirley Lauro performed by the Red Fern Theatre Company does not live up to its title.  We tend to forgive geniuses their poor social skills, but all we saw on stage in the Madame Curie enacted by Diana LaMar was a self-centered, cold woman who was unpleasant to all around her, without evidence of the brilliance.

Ms. LaMar is tentative, stiff, and puts her hands in her pockets far too often.  While one might expect her parchment skin to take on a pallor or a blush, it remained resolutely unchanged while rough seas presumably roiled within.  Ms. LaMar is not a generous actor, sharing neither an intellectual nor an emotional passion for science or for people.

AJ Cedeno as Paul Langevin was the only actor who used his voice well in the space and at least appeared enthused by his character’s desires.  This is not to say he was good.  His professions of love for science, teaching, or Mme. Curie herself were not convincing.  However, his voice was not unpleasant.

Rachel Berger as Madame Curie’s niece Katarina (sometimes Katya) had a voice to shatter windows.  However, while undeveloped as an actor, she showed more honesty in her characterization than the others onstage.  The only truthful behavior in the production was provided by Katya, whose actions sprang from her love and respect for her aunt. 

Timothy Doyle played three roles, each one better than the last.  This is not to say he rose to great heights, just that he improved as the evening wore on.  His clumsy paymaster with a dreadful French accent moved on to his overly foppish Lord Kelvin with an unrecognizable accent; both were gratefully forgotten in his most sensitive role of Wilbois, the poor old scientist who had the unwelcome task of telling Marie Curie she had not been accepted into the French Académie des Sciences.

Shirley Lauro’s script is skittish, jerkily moving from one scene to another, without taking the time to develop her characters.  It’s rather like a child’s book report — Lauro wants to show us that she knows the pertinent facts, and lays some out for us, but apparently doesn’t understand them well enough to flesh out this drama.  Some scenes are too short, some too long; and none draw us into Mme. Curie’s world.

Toward the end of the play, the widowed Mme. Curie’s affair with her assistant — the married, Catholic Paul Langevin — hit the front page of several Paris newspapers.  People with nothing better to do hurried to break her windows (not his), and call out profanities and accusations.  Although such catcalling did occur in Mme. Curie’s life, the incident did not move the story forward, and in the theatre, the “crowd” was so very loud that the audience could not hear Katarina and her aunt in what was probably a significant conversation about the possibility that the family was Jewish.  Were they?  I could not tell from this production. Nor could I tell, through all the noise, if there was any dramatic purpose to bringing it up where Ms. Lauro inserted it.

Mme. Curie’s affair with a younger, married man became Ms. Lauro’s focal point, instead of the woman’s mind and her drive and her work.  I am unfamiliar with Ms. Lauro’s earlier work, but she appears as undisciplined a writer as Melanie Moyer Williams is a director.

Ms. Moyer Williams’ direction made it impossible to know what was important, what was not, and whether or not her cast could act.  She did no favors for Ms. LaMar, who needs to open up to the audience so we can experience her pain, not merely suspect her of having some.  She did not assist Ms. Berger in modulating her voice to fit the space, nor did she clarify the play, focus the audience view, or encourage her actors to go an extra foot let alone a mile. In short, the direction was lazy.

This play is amateurishly written, performed, produced, and directed.  The structure is jagged and arrhythmic, is not about science as one might hope, nor does it give us the human drama we’d gladly take in exchange.  Points were made as in a term paper, and that’s where this play belongs:  in a high school.  I’m all for combining the arts and education and social causes, but bad theatre serves no one.

~ Molly Matera, looking fora good biography of Madame Curie

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