Sweet stench

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 mile 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.

You've probably gotten the idea that Therese Raquin is no springtime stroll through the park--unless, of course, there's a storm raging overhead and that park happens to be littered with decomposing corpses. Even the laughs in this show--and there are quite a few--arrive from a sad sense of fatalistic absurdity. But it's not really correct to call this show depressing--director Owens and her cast are too skillful, too subtle in the mood they stir to make you feel weighed down or blotted out. What you get is an indifferent God's-eye view of human tragedy--a karmic expression that when we push, somebody else pulls, and vice versa, throughout life and death. The ripple effects of an evil act will eventually expand to dampen the perpetrators, if they have any shred of humanity left. For this observer, the waves felt bracing but beautiful.

Therese Raquin runs through November 7. Call (214) 747-1424.

Dallas spoken word artist, singer, and playwright C.J. Critt is juggling an incontinent dog and a journalist at the same time as she describes a staged reading and a performance reading that are upcoming from Natural Blonde Productions, a company she co-formed with Dallas playwrights Molly Louise Shepard and Molly Moroney. After a long explanation of the troubles she must take to care for the 14-year-old dog's bladder problems and crippled back legs, she explains, unnecessarily, "I don't have kids." Then, by way of segue, she declares, "Dorothy Parker had an incontinent dog that was always piddling on the rug!"

Parker, as well as her literary comrades Robert Benchley and Alexander Woolcott, are supporting players in Algonquin, a one-hour staged reading of a musical Critt is writing with composer Michael Hirsch, a New York friend of 20 years. Besides Algonquin, Critt will rejoin her Angry Girl Sextet--along with Fran Carris and Morgana Shaw--for a performance of The Idea of a Woman, a "poetry drama with music and comedy about four women recovering from different addictions," she says. Both shows close Natural Blonde Production's "A Month of Sundays" October series.

Hirsch and Critt did a short showcase of Algonquin with story and libretto at Square One Composer's Series in New York City in May.

"It got a great reaction," she says. "I finished both acts over the summer, and now I try to get back to New York every two months to help while he finishes the music."

For "A Month of Sundays," Algonquin features 10 actors reading 17 characters. Critt will provide the narrative thread through this one-hour precis of the full-length script that includes six full musical numbers. It's a combination of Critt's own experiences in the '80s at the Algonquin and those of America's most famous literary roundtable.

"I'd read At Wit's End and What Fresh Hell Is This," Critt notes. "And I'd always thought it was interesting how these Algonquin wits paralleled the original Saturday Night Live cast--celebrated comic voices, standard-bearers of their generation, but very self-destructive. I wanted to address that, but also my own time at the Algonquin, where I was good friends with two men who've since passed on--one was an Algonquin bartender who used to take me to these huge Italian family dinners in Brooklyn. The other was a pianist there, a kind of poor man's Michael Feinstein. Every time you mentioned Feinstein's name, my friend would grit his teeth."

Algonquin is a boy-meets-girl story set in the late '80s about a privileged young woman who falls for the hotel bartender against her family's wishes. The ghosts of Parker, Benchley, and Woolcott attempt to keep them together while trying to scare away the hotel's new owners, an international consortium "trying to turn the place into Howard Johnson's," Critt says. "Before, there were no peanuts in the place. It was complete class--cashews, almonds, Brazil nuts. The new owners replace them with Chee-tos."

Algonquin and The Idea of a Woman are performed October 25 at 5 p.m. in Frank's Place at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. Call (214) 467-3636.


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