When Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary was published in 1856, it was publicly prosecuted for its scandalous portrayal of Emma Bovary’s obsession with finding love well beyond the confines of her marriage. In our culture, Emma’s promiscuity is less shocking than the sheer sadness of this story. And yet, Undermain Theatre is daring to produce this deeply sad story for an extended run from now until March 15. Playwright Adrienne Kennedy has adapted this decently sized and heavily detailed novel into a brisk 90-minute play, holding on to all the key elements of plot and character while moving the story along at a riveting pace. Although the play may dampen audience’s spirits, it won’t bore them for a moment.
Kennedy reframes the story from the perspective of Emma’s daughter, Berthe. Dakota Ratliff plays Berthe with the simultaneous innocence of a child and maturity of an adult; as a narrator of past events and a character within those events, she is both child and adult. She narrates the story as she and her father, Charles Bovary (Jim Jorgensen), discover Emma’s many love letters and begin to understand the mysteries and consequences of her affairs. This is Kennedy’s own way of framing the story. It gives the audience the sense that sins are being uncovered and examined — there’s an element of distance between Emma’s actions and the audience’s perception of them. As Charles Bovary pieces together his wife’s love letters with his own memories of her actions, Berthe too learns about her mother’s tragic life — and through Berthe, the audience learns of the truly negative effects of Emma Bovary’s constant selfishness.
Emma Bovary (Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso) is of course still the central figure of Madame Bovary. A young girl who has read far too many romance novels, she convinces herself that she’s in love with the kind doctor Charles Bovary; after marrying him, she falls into boredom and discontent. When the Bovarys move to a new town for the sake of Emma’s failing health, she quickly satisfies her desires for fiction-inspired romance — first, through a friendship with charming law student Léon (Omar Padilla), then through the acquisition of a lover, the handsome but manipulative Rodolphe (Brandon J. Murphy). In the background of her extramarital relationships grows Emma’s expensive love affair with material possessions, fueled by another manipulative gentleman, Monsieur L’Heureux (Brandon Whitlock).
The audience knows that things cannot end well for Emma — that much is guaranteed by her daughter’s narrative hints, as well as the ominous cross to the side of the stage signifying Emma’s grave. The only question is, which of her affairs will bring about her end, and how?
This play is engaging enough to keep the audience interested in that question up until it’s answered. Critical for captivating the audience, is, of course, Cleghorn Jasso’s portrayal of Emma Bovary, a difficult protagonist to discuss because she is so difficult to like. And yet, to say that at the end of the play one dislikes Emma is to say that Cleghorn Jasso did an excellent job playing her. Cleghorn Jasso’s interpretation of Emma is an unexpected one: She is more brazen and less wistful than the Emma of the novel, and yet her straightforwardness here makes clear the selfishness of her passions. The performance seemed less natural than many of the others, but then again Emma is a somewhat unnatural character.
The four male characters centered around Emma are well-portrayed by the actors who play them, though some of them are such mild characters that we scarcely get to know them — Charles Bovary and Léon are perhaps the only good men in the play, but a play that focuses on vice is hard-pressed to develop goodness. As a result, although Padilla and, especially, Jorgensen perform their more innocent characters well, we scarcely get to know them. Murphy’s Rodolphe and Whitlock’s L’Heureux, on the other hand, are quickly understood in spite of (or because of) their false charms. It’s easier to understand characters who always do bad things than it is to understand ones who always good things; and the former is invariably more intriguing to audiences, anyway.
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Also circling the four main male characters are an ensemble of actors, most of whom play at least two side-characters: Rhonda Boutté, Jamal Sterling, Charlotte Akins, Amber Rossi, Benjamin Bratcher and Danny Lovelle, who circle around as the innkeeper, the pharmacist, servants, priests, opera singers, ballroom dancers and more. Some of them are significant to the plot, but many of them merely add texture to the small-town story. What’s a small town without the idiosyncratic neighbors? Although the number of people onstage sometimes makes the play seem unfocused, the variety of cast members make most every scene more vivid and realistic.
Contributing to the background as much as the secondary characters are Russell Parkman’s set design, Steve Woods’ lighting and Justin Locklear’s sound design. The set is pretty, frilly, flowery and pink; it seems to represent Emma’s ideal femininity. Dramatic red lighting and abstruse music, however, demonize the gentle design. Might we see that as a metaphor?
Adrienne Kennedy has beautifully adapted this tragic tale to the stage, and the folk at Undermain have done honor to both her work and Flaubert’s in this excellent production.
The inclusion of dance and opera in this play are great finishing touches to the panoply of design; there is a long scene of ballroom dancing, choreographed by Danielle Georgiou, as well as a brief play-within-a-play featuring a surprisingly good bit of opera sung by Rossi and Bratcher. Although the dancing and the music occur within the plot, it would be easy to cut them out to shave time off the production; that director Bruce DuBois daringly chose to keep them was wise. Without the elements of dance and music, the play would be lacking any untarnished beauty whatsoever. Madame Bovary is an overall unhappy story, but it is good to see some beauty in its universe.