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Camus' The Plague as Coffin Ballet

In the Chinese Year of the Rat, Scena Theatre has premiered on April 14, 2008, Otho Eskin's adaptation of Albert Camus' most popular novel The Plague. While the Dresser does not wish to negate the generally shared idea that the plague-ridden rats of Scena's current offering in their Nouvelle Vague 20th Anniversary Season are horrifically bad, she will say that a Rat Year is a time of hard work and renewal and that this play adaptation speaks admirably to both hard work and renewal.

How so?

RATS AND THE HUMAN CONDITION

Before the Dresser can talk about what the playwright and co-directors Elle Wilhite (Ms. Wilhite is also an actor and she played Inez in Scena's recent production of No Exit) and Robert McNamara have done to develop this work for the stage, some background information is necessary. Despite the agreement among fans of Camus that La Peste (The Plague) is his most accessible novel, this existential classic about the Algerian town of Oran under lockdown after a plethora rats turn up dead everywhere and then people start dying offers multiple interpretations.
theplague099s.jpg
Kim Curtis (Monsieur Othon), Karen O'Conell, Michael Vitaly Sazonaov (Dr. Rieux)





It is a grim allegory about the human condition--who's morally good or bad, who's physically weak or strong, who's civically helpful or destructive. In keeping with the time during which Camus wrote this work (World War II and the German occupation), the novel, published in 1947, has been read as a metaphorical statement of the French resistance to the Nazi occupation. On top of these layers, which seem straightforward by comparison, is the philosophic edge of the absurd dealing with things over which we have no control (death and pestilence, for example).

And two more things about the location of this story and the characters. Camus' Oran is a town where nothing happens, nothing grows like trees or flowers. Just a dusty town where "even love is banal." This is important to know because how people change under the siege of bubonic plague is what Camus was interested in studying. Also and unlike most small theater productions, there are fourteen actors in the cast and some play multiple roles.

Considering the complexity of the work and its large role call of characters, this is not what the Dresser would call an easy novel to adapt to the stage.

So how has the adaptation been done?

OF RAT SYMPHONY AND COFFIN BALLET

Eskin has boiled the five-part novel (about 320 pages) down to an intermission-less one-and-half hour play. The Dresser believes the strategy of no intermission essential to building the tension of the play adaptation. The playwright has also reassigned some of the didactic dialogue from Doctor Rieux, who is the narrator of the story, to Jean Tarrou, a philosophic outsider who seems in many respects to mirror Albert Camus. As directors, Wilhite and McNamara have created what McNamara calls a "corps de ballet" having the cast effect stylized movements backed up by a sound track that McNamara calls the "rat symphony."
theplague124s.jpgThe cast interacts with telephone-booth-sized cubes. Does everyone know what a telephone booth looks like since the cell phone has rendered these edifices unnecessary? Segments of the cast climb into these cubes while others move the occupied structures around. Designed and built by set designer Leon Weibers, the cubes look like display cabinets or Sleeping Beauty's glass casket upended. Without the constant repositioning of the cubes filled with the stop action players (think of mannequins in a department store window), the Dresser thinks this play would not offer enough emotional variety to keep the audience engaged.

Why?

The news keeps getting worse. First there are the dead rats, then people start dying and no one wants to admit a plague is happening much less do anything to counteract it. Soon the officials wake up and the town is gated so no one can leave and no one else can enter. The town's preacher says the plague was brought on by the sins of the town and later after a child dies an agonizing death, the preacher recants and says this is a test of faith. A criminal who otherwise would have been arrested is now free to operate a service for people who want to leave the quarantined town. The only ray of hope is that Dr. Rieux's colleague Dr. Castel will find a serum to counteract the epidemic and that Joseph Grand, a quirky friend of Dr. Rieux's, will make progress and finish his novel.
theplague080s.jpg
Samantha Merrick and Joe Lewis (Joseph Grand)

When the story ends, the plague has ended, but Dr. Rieux knows and says that plague just goes into hiding.

What the ballet of the cubes does is alter the emotional load. The Dresser knows this technique is necessary for most American theatergoers who avoid like the--(you know the cliché, Dear Reader) anything about bleak subjects. And besides, if you happen to know Camus' work, there is always a penetrating descent into the Void. The Dresser found the movement of the cubes and the ways in which the players interacted with these see-through boxes both fascinating and energizing.

The Dresser's appreciation of the cubes brings her back to the assertion that a Rat Year offers renewal. The Dresser believes that this play adaptation and clever production by Scena offers a new way to look at Camus' work and that the story of The Plague speaks to our time under George W. Bush and the unnecessary war raging in Iraq. The Plague is part I of Scena's "The Camus Project." In 2009, Scena will produce The Stranger. (Many critics argue that a better English translation of Camus' title L'Etranger would be The Outsider.) Stay tuned for next year's dose of existential angst.

Fred Marchant's Vietnam era poem "Tipping Point" speaks to the plague of war that can never be shaken off. This poem is from Marchant's Washington Prize-winning collection by the same title.

TIPPING POINT

Late blue light, the East
.............. China Sea, a half-mile out. . .
............................... masked, snorkeled, finned,

rising for air, longing for it,
.............. and in love with the green
............................... knife-edged hillsides, the thick

aromatic forests, and not ready
.............. for the line of B-52's coming in
............................... low on the horizon, three airplanes

at a time, bomb-empty after
.............. the all-day run to Viet Nam.
............................... Long, shuddering wings, and predatory,

dorsal tail-fins, underbelly
.............. in white camouflage, the rest
............................... jungle-green, saural, as if a gecko had

grown wings, a tail-fin, and
.............. nightmare proportions. Chest deep,
............................... on the reef-edge, I think of the war smell

which makes it back here:
.............. damp red clay, cordite, and fear-salts
............................... woven into the fabric of everything not

metal: tarps, webbed-belts,
.............. and especially the jungle "utes,"
............................... the utilities, the fatigue blouses

and trousers which were not
.............. supposed to rip, but breathe,
............................... and breathe they do--not so much

of death--but rather the long
.............. living with it, sleeping in it,
............................... not ever washing your body free of it.

A corporal asked me if he still stank.
.............. I told him no, and he said,
............................... "With all due respect, Lieutenant,

I don't believe you." A sea snake,
.............. habu, slips among the corals,
............................... and I hover while it slowly passes.

My blue surf mat wraps its rope
.............. around me, tugs inland
............................... at my hips while I drift over ranges

of thick, branching elkhorn,
.............. over lilac-pale anemones,
............................... over the crown-of-thorns starfish,

and urchins spinier than naval
.............. mines, over mottled slugs,
............................... half-buried clams, iridescent angelfish.

The commanding general said,
.............. "Every man has a tipping point,
............................... a place where his principles give way."

I told him I did not belong
.............. to any nation on earth, but
............................... a chill shift of wind, its hint of squall

beyond the mountain tells me
.............. no matter what I said or how,
............................... it will be a long swim back,
.......................................... my complicities in tow.

by Fred Marchant
from Tipping Point

Copyright © 1993 by Fred Marchant

Photos by Ian C. Armstrong

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Comments (2)

As usual, the poem is the icing on a significant and considerable cake.

Maria:

You're critique is illuminating, Dresser, going
under the skin in the manner that you do is
like a genius psychologist at work.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 21, 2008 9:38 PM.

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