Play: “The Visit”
Group: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: June 16, 17, 18, 23, 24, 25
Tickets: $18-$20; contact 314-865-1995 or www.straydogtheatre.org
Story: Once upon a time, Claire Zachanassian was a poor girl in the quiet little village of Gullen in central Europe. She fell in love at 17 with Anton Schill, a handsome boy two years her senior, and he impregnated her. Later he disavowed any responsibility for fathering her child, bribing two thick-witted locals to testify against Claire in her paternity suit. After losing the case, Claire left town in disgrace and became a prostitute in Hamburg, where eventually she met and married an elderly billionaire named Zachanassian.
Meanwhile, Anton married the general store proprietor, Matilda, and assumed running the family business. They lived a modestly successful life with their two children, and Anton was even considered the heir apparent to the position of mayor in the village. Hard times come upon Gullen, however. Unemployment is up, poverty is rampant and hope is in decline until word reaches the hamlet that Claire, now a billionaire herself, is returning for a visit. Her arrival sparks enthusiasm and excitement that reaches fever pitch when Claire announces that she will donate one billion marks to the community after the many-times-married Claire enjoys a fond reunion with Anton. There is a condition to the bequest, however, one that is shocking to the mayor and his constituents. Will they accede to Claire’s wishes to garner material gains or stand by their morals?
Highlights: Stray Dog artistic director Gary Bell has long wanted to stage a version of this acclaimed work by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, whose most famous play was translated into English by American professor Maurice Valency. Bell has brought his vision to the stage for the finale of Stray Dog’s 2010-11 season, and the result is one of the theatrical highlights of the year. Stellar in execution, sweeping in scope and sensational in artistic expression, “The Visit” is a must-see presentation for anyone who cherishes thoughtful writing, inspired creative expression and elegant artistic achievement.
Other Info: Bell’s loving admiration for the script is enhanced with an absorbing interpretation that he references in his director’s notes. Calling “The Visit” a “complex parable that contains elements of Greek drama, biblical stories and sinister fairy tales,” Bell blends aspects of commedia dell’arte, the Meyerhold technique of stylized movement, the employment of actors in non-traditional gender or age roles and a vibrant color scheme that emphasizes the garish and bizarre in makeup, costuming and props to combine for a riveting and fascinating exploration about the scope of human morality and whether money can, indeed, buy anything at any price.
The highly stylized rendition, which effortlessly absorbs three hours in its two compelling acts, features a sprawling cast that Bell and stage manager Justin Been keep corralled and controlled as they deliver their lines in military precision. While there are moments that drag here and there, it’s nonetheless an exhilarating triumph that offers both technical and acting skills of the highest rank.
Been’s moody and atmospheric sound design, which smacks at times of Danny Elfman’s score for “Edward Scissorhands,” sets the haunting tone for this cautionary tale. It’s matched by Jay Hall’s evocative set design, a stone fortress that belies the vulnerability in the townsfolk’s supposedly iron-clad morality, a set that’s beautifully illuminated with Tyler Duenow’s probing lighting. Add some exaggerated costumes with resounding primary colors, all designed deliciously by Alexandra Scibetta Quigley, and the tone is set for this fateful fable.
The extremely impressive ensemble is led by Julie Layton and R. Travis Estes as the inextricably entwined former lovers. Layton makes for a stark and stunning Claire in her roguishly red attire, while Estes is the subdued and pensive Schill, who slowly and uneasily realizes what’s happening to his beloved village. Between Layton’s pointed and chillingly detached observations about life and love and Estes’ growing despair, they concoct a delicious recipe for tasty acting.
The sturdy supporting cast includes precise turns by Bob Harvey as Claire’s overpaid and overeducated butler; Jan Niehoff as the officious mayor or ‘burgomaster” who changes the rules to fit his fancy; Sarajane Alverson as the troubled teacher who desperately tries to help the beleaguered Schill; and Jenni Ryan as Schill’s increasingly distant wife.
Colleen Backer aptly demonstrates her skills as a comic performer as well as a puppeteer, while Katie Puglisi is amusing as the disdainful artist. Other fine efforts are provided by Stephen Peirick as the station manager, C.E. Fifer and Olivia Light as Claire’s pair of blind eunuchs, Ryan Glosemeyer as the weak pastor, Melissa Harris as the idealistic doctor, Kevin Boehm as Claire’s dimwitted husband, Shane Mullen as a diffident police officer and C. Blaine Adams.
Bell’s ambitious interpretation of this literary gem is beautifully realized and impeccably performed, a visual and auditory treat of the highest order.
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.