Roudebush's inventive, energetic approach is most apparent in the first act, set in a Paris cafe. As cast members alternately take major roles (by making quick offstage changes of masks and costumes) and speak for and animate the puppets for minor parts, the bustling cafe and its colorful, witty characters come vividly alive. I'll grant that the use of masks and puppets turns most of the characters into caricatures, which they might not be in a conventionally presented production. But these exaggerated characterizations seem appropriate to Giraudoux's broadly humorous, fabular, gently didactic play.
Although Roudebush says he chose The Madwoman of Chaillot because he thought - rightly - that he could do it justice with a small cast, the 60-year-old play is also amazingly relevant to events of today. One of Giraudoux's prime targets in this wide-ranging satire is corporate greed and irresponsibility. It's impossible to hear his cynical, heartless corporate president talk about stock manipulation and not think of Enron or WorldCom and pillaging executives. The time of the play, according to the program, is "the spring of next year," and it's not much of a stretch.
Although the company president doesn't have any idea what his company does - and remember this was written almost six decades before the dot-com phenomenon - he soon finds a purpose for it. In the cafe, he meets a prospector who is convinced there is oil beneath Paris. They conspire to drill for it, and in the corrupt Paris that Giraudoux presents, there's no doubt the plan will succeed. The plot turns when the Madwoman, also known as the Countess and a regular in the cafe, gets wind of the scheme and determines to stop it.
Giraudoux's resolution is perfunctory and silly, even for a comic fable, and the play takes a final turn into romanticism that is less than convincing. However, the darker, less frenetic second act offers Roudebush and his technical staff opportunity for some dramatic staging. The illusion lighting created by director James P. Murphy to - for want of a better term - "disappear" the bad guys is one of the most remarkable I've seen outside of a magic show.
The Countess may be considered crazy but, of course, she is a lot saner than the madmen who would destroy Paris to get rich on oil. Jennifer Childs plays the part with an air of authoritative righteousness that suggests madness, but makes her seem, perhaps, a bit too sane. A touch of instability and flakiness would help the portrayal, and Childs could probably project these qualities more forcefully if she didn't wear a mask. It seems to muffle her characterization without adding much to it.
Still, Childs provides the production with a strong center, and though her portrayal might be richer, it is very good. So are those of cast members Aaron Cromie, Dawn Falato, Dave Jadico and Robert Smythe in a variety of roles, and Michael Canfield, a deaf actor, who plays the Deaf-Mute. It's a fine ensemble.
Last season, Roudebush and Mum collaborated on a stunning production of the psychological drama Equus that went on to win five Barrymore Awards. This fine Madwoman proves that Equus was no accident: The director and theater appear made for each other.
Contact Douglas J. Keating at 215-854-5609 or email@example.com.
The Madwoman of Chaillot
Written by Jean Giraudoux, translated and adapted by Maurice Valency, directed by William Roudebush, settings by Dirk Durossette, costumes by Susan D. Smythe, lighting by James P. Murphy, sound by John Mock.
The cast: Michael Canfield, Jennifer Childs, Aaron Cromie, Dawn Falato, Dave Jadico, Robert Smythe.
Playing at: Mum Puppettheatre, 115 Arch St., through Nov. 16. Tickets tonight are $10; they will increase $1 per performance, reaching a maximum of $24. (Tomorrow's performance is sold out.) Information: 215-925-7686 or www.mumpuppet.org.