By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Last week in this space, I compared the Undermain Theatre to Teatro Dallas because of the often surreal and fabulist takes they share on life, death, and all the weird stuff that connects them like a string between two cans. This amounted to clairvoyance on my part, coming as it did after having seen Teatro's terrific El Dia de Los Muertos show Howling at the Moon but before I saw the Undermain's season opener, Therese Raquin, a few days later. (OK, maybe not clairvoyance, but October is hunting season for the supernatural beneath every coincidence.) Undermain might as well call its crisp, eerie, remorseless adaptation of the 1867 ƒmile Zola scandal novel its Day of the Dead show, so cram-packed is it with references to and symbols of death and dying. Throughout the course of the second act, the characters are slowly being gassed from the stench of one man whose death bears their fingerprints like bruises. Audiences, meanwhile, will likely get high off the fumes of this transcendent, sometimes perversely funny production that suggests there might be something worse than getting caught for a terrible crime--getting away with it.
Zola's death by suffocation from charcoal fumes in 1902 was grotesquely appropriate for a man who spent the last three decades of the 19th century rubbing the sooty details of French life in his readers' noses. Just as Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary had shocked the Paris intelligentsia with a seemingly nonjudgmental look at adultery and greed a decade before, so did Therese Raquin, Zola's first success, seem to offer little censure to the shopkeeper's attendant and the painter who revel in their infidelity, then kill her sickly husband to get him out of the way. But as their careers progressed, Flaubert and Zola were both recognized as pioneering naturalists who said, "Hey, we don't need to tamper with the sins of our characters. The evidence of their awfulness is pretty damning in natural light." And eventually, of course, their respective title characters became ensnared in the traps of their own decisions; it wasn't necessary for either novelist to trip the spring.
Undermain's Therese Raquin is based on an adaptation by playwright Neal Bell, a longtime source for company productions. As directed by Katherine Owens in the Undermain's underground-cave space, Bell's script unfolds relentlessly, the actors seemingly trapped in a diorama. While Owens, co-artistic director Raphael Parry, and Lisa Lee Schmidt, the company's main directors, have done some wonderful work in this basement, those giant concrete pillars have inevitably inhibited some of their shows. The seats may be placed between these round supports, but there's still a limited space onstage for the actors to travel before they pass behind one of them and disappear.
Therese Raquin actually benefits from this tight squeeze. It mirrors the constricted life of Therese (Amy Acker), who grew up parentless and basically an object of charity from the no-nonsense Madame (Gail Cronauer). Therese also spends her childhood alongside Madame's chronically unhealthy son Camille (Cameron Cobb), whom she occasionally torments. All her life, she has been pushed and pulled in directions without her consent. As a young woman, she marries Camille out of a sense of debt and moves from the French countryside to Madame's shop in Paris, where she works. Weekends consist of torturously monotonous domino games with the same crowd of locals (H. Francis Fuselier, Ambre Low, Dennis Millegan, Newton Pittman).
Into this vacuum steps the roguish Laurent (Bruce DuBose), a drinking buddy of Camille's. Soon after he and Therese lock eyes, they begin devouring each other in reckless sexual trysts that seem to happen with the self-destructive hope that someone will catch them. It turns out that the most dangerous place to be in late-19th-century Paris is between Therese and Laurent, and that's exactly where good-natured, daydreaming Camille finds himself. But the desperate lovers find that Camille won't quite stay dispatched; whether it's his peculiar odor or his habit of showing up in darkened rooms when they least expect him, Camille grows gargantuan in their hearts and minds and, eventually, winds up smothering them.
The population of this teeming necropolis by the riverside is grimly, uniformly pristine. Amy Acker was charming in Stage West's Beast on the Moon as an Armenian virgin bride. Here, she's considerably less so, proving her ability to camp at both ends of the acting spectrum--her eyes, so gentle and inquisitive in the Fort Worth show, are haggard and weary and hungry here. If you make broad comparisons between this play and A Place in the Sun, Cameron Cobb gets the Shelley Winters role--the undesirable mate caught between two paramours. He's stunning--gently imaginative and restless before death, a creepily stark, soulless specter after. Gail Cronauer as the oblivious mother who is, literally, stunned into silence by her son's killing is equally adept at transforming herself when she crosses from life into a kind of half-life; frozen and chairbound during most of the second act, she keeps warm with a hard little flame of fury burning inside her. These actors are rendered almost illusory by Bryan Miller's eerily impressionistic lighting, which recreates the stygian flicker of light bouncing from a river where the characters take refuge and sin.