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The Captive — Philadelphia Artists’ Collective at The Physick House

RachelBrodeur ChaseByrd Captive Low Res WideEyedStudiosÉdouard Bourdet’s “La Prisonnière,” which translates in English to “The Captive,” was bold for 1926 as it centered on a taboo subject, Lesbianism, and caused a stir in Paris, New York, London, and Vienna. The commotion was so great in New York that the police raided the Empire Theatre, where it was playing, and arrested the management and cast.

The irony is this act of egregious moralism occurred after “The Captive” had run five months on Broadway. I guess it takes time for idiots to catch up with matters about which they, like Claude Rains’s Captain Renault in “Casablanca,” can say they are “shocked, shocked.”

Lesbianism and homosexuality may continue to rankle some, e.g, county clerks in Kentucky and hopeless Presidential wannabes like former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, but they’ve faded as topics that elevate the curiosity of theater audiences. Most Broadway plays these days has their de rigueur gay character, fitting or not. The near century that has passed since Bourdet’s opus or Noel Coward’s “The Vortex,” written a few years earlier, has rendered gayness a matter of fact, which as a gay person I think is a good thing.

The revelation that Irene, the lead character on “The Captive,” and the one to whom its title refers, is involved with a woman is well-timed and comes unexpectedly. Bourdet is enough of a writer to couch his coup de grace in a situation that has a lot of possibilities. You know Irene is not romantically in love with her husband, Jacques, and you suspect she has sustained a pre-marital love affair with a Monsieur D’Aiguine, a married man she met, with his wife, on a cruise. The impression is Jacques, who has carnal feelings towards Irene, married her to give her the courage to break with D’Aiguine. Bourdet’s climax comes when Jacques realizes Irene must be sexually involved elsewhere. After all, once you begin with D’Aiguine… (I know. I couldn’t stop myself.)

The spoiler is it is Mme. D’Aiguine who has claimed Irene’s affections and who hold her in a kind of sexual thrall that is not a matter of blackmail or dominating power but one of Irene, struggling to be conventional in spite of her inclinations and obvious attraction, wanting to free herself from any commitment that would tarnish her appearance and reputation for perfection.

Today, being Lesbian might be considered stylish. In 1926, a woman’s taste would be questioned if she was not ashamed of such feelings or didn’t take some step to resist them.

To Bourdet’s credit, he doesn’t judge Irene or place some moral opprobrium on her character. That’s the cunning part of “The Captive.” Bourdet, in addition to being courageous in broaching homosexuality in 1926 — Coward couches it in drug addiction in “The Vortex.” — is sophisticatedly modern enough to make the play a personal dilemma rather than a broader moral one. He centers his play on Irene, who essentially wants freedom from, and for, everything but can’t reconcile the image of the Parisian woman she wants to convey with a deep romantic involvement she must, for propriety’s sake, help to keep secret. Homosexuality is an issue, but it is part of a more cloying problem for a woman who is not keen about obeying her father, husband, or Lesbian partner. Irene sees herself as imprisoned by the people for whom she has genuine regard and who love her. To satisfy Jacques is to deny her lover. To satisfy her lover means the end of an arrangement she has with Jacques to lead a undemonstrative life in which love is of the kind shared by friends or siblings rather than spouses.

Contemporary audiences might enjoy that beyond the homosexual story line, Bourdet addresses the fickle vicissitudes of love and makes it clear that most couples come to a happy understanding that makes life together tolerable when the first blushes or ardor wear off then disappear. From Bourdet’s play, and Dan Hodge’s production of it for the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, the brilliance comes less from the Lesbian issue and more from how well Bourdet understood the course of love, even true love, as Irene and Jacques, and Irene and Mme. D’Aiguine, have on some level, is ephemeral and must, if a couple is to remain together, leads to a comfortable, ameliorating agreement that allows both parties to go about their individual lives in relative peace.

“The Captive” has a lot in it besides its zinger. Like many playwrights of his era, Bourdet endows his work with lots of texture, lots of ideas for one to consider, the Lesbian plot line being one of them however foremost it becomes.

While Bourdet’s script sparks interest and provokes thought, Hodge’s production for PAC is a mixed bag that doesn’t establish a firm line between comedy and melodrama (although It leans towards melodrama) and suffers from uneven performances, especially Rachel Brodeur’s turn in the crucial role of Irene. In consequence. “The Captive” doesn’t come across as potently as it might. The delights tend to be intellectual, Bourdet’s script and your analysis while watching, rather than dramatic or theatrical. Hodge’s production has a still quality. You observe it more than getting involved with it or moved by it. At times, the show bogs into dullness. I can see how emphasizing comedy could lead to dodgy patches when Jacques and Irene must confront each other seriously, but I think a lighter, more boulevardian touch would have helped enliven the early scenes, especially those between Irene and her father. A gradual transition from comic to dramatic may have been preferable.

The PAC production yields Bourdet’s piece more as a curiosity, one with marvelous insight well worth studying, than as a vibrant, animated work of theater. You leave the elegant 18th century Physick House, where “The Captive” is performed, with lots of impressions and lots to say, but the conversation centers on Bourdet and his frank and perceptive take on unrequited or businesslike love rather than on Hodge’s presentation. Hodge and PAC must be thanked for resurrecting and re-introducing Bourdet’s remarkable piece, but now I crave to see a production that moves me because of my feelings for the characters rather than for my cerebral response to Bourdet’s well-examined themes.

One anticipates Irene’s entrance based on all we hear about her from her younger sister, Gisele, the sister’s governess, Mlle, Marchand, and Irene’s father, M. Montcel.

Montcel is either an international businessman or a government envoy. He and his family are French and live in Paris but have resided in outposts throughout the world. The first conflict we know about is Irene’s reluctance to go with Gisele and their father when they leave so he can take a post he’s been assigned in Rome. You get the impression the Montcels have been quite nomadic. You also hear that Irene adores Rome and didn’t want to depart the last time the Montcels lived there. This makes you wonder, along with M. Montcel, why she is so determined to give up a return to Rome to remain in Paris. The father suspects a romance, and so do we.

Exposition is rife is these early scenes, but we warm to the situation being developed, helped by a natural and winning performance by Alex Boyle as 17-year-old Gisele and a stern but commanding turn by John Lopes as the women’s father.

Irene, her stubbornness, and the surmise she is in love, dominate most conversations. We long to see her, especially since her impeccable manners, exquisite taste, and bright personality have been bruited for 10 minutes before she appears.

Questions arise as soon as Brodeur enters as Irene. You wonder at Robin I. Shane’s choice of costume for the character. Boyle’s Gisele is outfitted perfectly in a dress that would denote a young woman of the 1920s. Irene, praised for her sense of style and attention to detail, does not look like a woman of fashion or taste. Her dress doesn’t fit well and it seems too plain and all over nondescript. Yes, it’s a frock she wore for the day, before she dresses for a dinner her father is holding that evening, but it doesn’t speak of young Parisienne about town. Neither Brodeur nor Shane show you the Irene that has been described.

NealBoxCould it be that Irene is in such a quandary, about defying her father and other matters, that she has become neglectful? Is it that the Irene we see is just a shadow of the 23-year-old art student with which her friends and family are familiar.

Brodeur seems agitated, which is understandable as you learn more about her dilemmas. The wonder she doesn’t try to hide Irene’s angst and commune with her family, especially her sister and the governess, with whom she is close, is the manner they’ve led us to expect she would.

The angst and agitation could be acceptable, but Brodeur never lightens. In subsequent scenes with Gisele, her father, and Jacques, she maintains this stricken look on her face, a frowning expression of someone who just heard sad news and can’t rally even spirit to look anything but sullen and horrified.

There’s no variety to this Irene. Brodeur conveys one mood, one posture. She impresses as someone who has been slapped, hard and damagingly, and can’t get over it. That dour emotion remains on her face to the point it loses effect. Especially since it is so obviously feigned. We see Brodeur, an actress, pretending to despondency, instead of Irene, who must be regarded as a real person, wrestling with agony while trying to establish an air of reality that would not focus attention on her.

You establish no relationship or sympathy with this character. Unlike Boyle, who makes Gisele into a sunny, enthusiastic being and a concerned sister, or Lopes, who exudes the stern, no-nonsense attitude of Montcel, Brodeur never varied. She maintains her impression of emotion, so Irene never becomes someone we want to root for or protect as we should considering she is the “captive” and her pain and confusion are authentic.

Although Lopes is properly stern and unyielding as the father who has had enough guff from a disobedient daughter who is of age to be in Paris unchaperoned but not living in a society, or stratum of it that would approve such independence, the scene in which Montcel confronts Irene with an ultimatum plays as a standard sequence that could be from any number of shows. The individuality of Irene’s characters and specific important of this scene to “The Captive” does not register. We begin to wonder whether Bourdet’s play is going to be chocked with information but little emotion.

Theatrical matters improve when Chase Byrd enters as Jacques, the man Irene has revealed to her father as her love interest and a man who genuinely has romantic feelings for Irene.

Byrd manages to add a dimension Boyle and Lopes didn’t have the chance to convey. He comes across as a genuine and complex character. Although Brodeur doesn’t return it, and perhaps for justifiable reasons, Byrd lets you see that Jacques has high regard for Irene. There’s a reality and texture to his performance that make him a believable person in the story and not someone who will have to get by on only his lines.

You feel for Byrd’s Jacques because he seems, in turn, practical and noble. He wants Irene to recognize the verity of his love, yet he is willing, out of affectionate friendship, to smooth the way for her to get what she wants. Even after she has coolly shunned his sincere appeal for them to unite in marriage.

Byrd is adept at showing Jacques’s ardor and putting it aside to consider the favor Irene is asking him to do. The warm romantic moves easily into the cool businessman who agrees to help a friend. Throughout the production, Byrd will give Jacques this variety and texture. It is his sacrifice for love, and his bond with himself in regards to Irene and her happiness, that intrigues more and rivets more than the revelation, which comes from a third party, that Irene is having an adulterous affair with a woman.

The second act, which is played in a different room at The Physick House from the first, has more direct action in it and is more engaging and satisfying than its predecessor. It may be because Byrd is so dominant in the latter half of the show. It may also be because Bourdet introduces us to several instances of passionate love giving way to affectionate compromises and understandings, some of which sanction mistresses and adultery.

In the second act, you meet the woman Jacques disappoints to come to Irene’s aid and who, against what she says, willing to resume their relationship if and when he sees Irene for all she is and chooses to return to her. You also meet M. D’Aiguines, who is aware of his wife’s proclivities and her attachment to Irene. This confluence of characters clearly spells out all people relinquish in the name of coupling and maintaining a marital front in society. It becomes the fascinating partner of Bourdet’s script as we consider the unhappiness these people bring upon themselves by persevering and marrying when they know their hearts and inclinations lie elsewhere.

Brodeur expands her performance from one pouty expression to a variety of moods in the second act, but her portrayal of Irene never gets past the surface. Bourdet’s ideas come through, and Irene’s escalating dilemma is understood, but the actress never rises to the demands of her character or makes her the focal, sympathetic figure she should be. Irene should be tugging at our hearts and persuading us to empathize and come to her aid. Brodeur keeps us in our analytic mode, judging and admiring Bourdet’s craft but never being touched by it.

While Irene remains the critical character, the one around whom all revolves, Jacques is the one who meets with all of the players and uncovers all that is known, including Irene’s ongoing dalliance with Mme. D’Aiguine.

Byrd is the boulevardier I looked for the first act. There is much about him of the suave Parisian gentleman, one who earned his money in business deals in Morocco and is free to live and spend with some leisure.

He and Irene have forged a marriage of convenience, Jacques always hoping his love and martyrdom will engender intimate rather than what amounts to filial feelings in Irene, Irene hoping in turn that she will come to love Jacques in an adult manner rather than as a friend to whom she is grateful, but whom, she, in this world of Bourdet’s double-edged sword, also resents. Jacques, after all, cannot save her from what Irene says is the snare in which Mme. D’Aiguine has her. No matter how much fortitude Irene tries to muster, she remains captive to her feelings for her Lesbian partner.

Byrd shows the full character of Jacques as he interacts with his former mistress and M. D’Aiguine. Mme. D’Aguine remains unseen.

Byrd can miss the full import of a line reading by emphasizing the wrong word or implying a lesser meaning, but in general, he embodies the good-natured, good-hearted, but ultimately foiled gentleman Jacques is

Felicia Leicht is all sophistication, with glimmers of the romantic, as Françoise, the woman who has had an adult and affection affair with Jacques, one that would have lasted or ended in marriage if Irene’s neediness had not intervened.

Leicht is as cool as Byrd is. You see in this pair another set of lovers who have had their passion and are now ready to settle down into compatible couplehood. And that is the difference. You believe, with their sensible natures and high characters, Jacques and Françoise would have managed to forge a congenial relationship that included love and sex on occasion but was, in the end, just as convenient and mutually contenting as any other Parisian liaison, only with a tad more genuine regard and, maybe, occasional renewals of ardent love.

Like Brodeur in the first act, Leicht is plagued with a hideous dress Françoise wouldn’t don to win a bet. It is totally dowdy and out of keeping with what a smart Parisian would wear to visit her love.

Drat if Leicht isn’t keep in the same costume when she visits Jacques on a second occasion. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to wear this hideous couture once is a misfortunate, to wear it twice seems downright careless. Especially when on her second visit, Leicht is draped in a ugly white coat that is supposed to simulate fur on the collar and placket but looks more like a terrycloth bathrobe that once upon a time saw better days.

Ben Mahan, while not looking in any way French from the 1920s, served well as M. D’Aiguine. Michelle Pauls were properly austere yet concerned as the governess. Joel Guerrero, decked in a handsome black tuxedo with a bright white vest and pleated shirt, was perfection as Jacques’s valet. Guerrero gave his character authenticity by carrying out the butler’s professional duties well but exchanging glances with Byrd that show the relationship he has with Jacques after being in his service. Small gestures and expressions, always appropriate and always in proportion with his part, added to Guerrero’s performance and placed it among the more successful in the production.

Although I was dismayed at Irene’s first dress and Françoise’s only dress, I thought Robin I. Shane did a fine job is choosing Gisele’s clothes, Irene’s later costumes, and Guerrero’s formal wear. The collar on Jacques’s shirt needed starching, not to keep with the period but with what is obviously Jacques’s personal fastidiousness. M. D’Aiguine’s suit, and especially his shirt collar, were wrong for the period, but the wrong note in wardrobe seemed right somehow for the character.

The use of The Physick House for the production was inspired. Both rooms in the historic home, perfectly passed as drawing rooms in M. Montcel and Jacques’s respectively homes. I should look this up — lazy, lazy Neal — but I believe James Madison stayed at The Physick House during his Presidency. Philip Syng Physick, the surgeon for which the house is named (although he was its second owner), definitely entertained the leaders of the American Revolution and treated Dolley Madison, Nabby Adams, and even his fellow physician, Benjamin Rush.

One room in The Physick House had remarkable wallpaper that offers a trompe l’oeil effect of cascading draperies. The furnishings in both rooms were elegant and in keeping with the social status of the Montcels and Jacques. Hodge and company augmented some Physick House items with props, including a charming period telephone. To add authenticity to the production, Hodge has Guerrero’s butler close the shutters in Jacques’s house as the sun begins to set.

“The Captive,” produced by the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, runs through Sunday, September 20, at The Physick House, 321 S. 4th Street (4th and Cypress), in Philadelphia. The production is also aligned with the Fringe Festival. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tikcets are $25 and can be obtained by visiting www.fringearts.com.

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