Williamstown (MA) Theater Festival
It’s not quite like making a musical of “King Lear,” but tuning up Friedrich Düerrenmatt’s bleak, dyspeptic “The Visit” (translated by Maurice Valency) is a close second. That it succeeds as well as it does at the Williamstown Theater Festival is a tribute to years of development, the dedication to the project of its star Chita Rivera, the physical production and John Doyle’s forceful, stylized direction. Although tones sometimes clash, the overall effect of this one-act, 100-minute show is powerful.
Rivera plays Claire Zachanassian, the world’s richest woman. Returning to her birthplace, the impoverished European town of Brachen, she has a grisly proposition. In exchange for billions of marks, the townspeople are tasked to kill Anton Schell, the former lover who impregnated, then deserted her so many wealthy husbands ago. At first, the people rebel; later, greed gets the best of them.
Having lost a leg and hand in accidents, Claire travels with a doting staff: two eunuchs, who also once betrayed her, plus her loyal butler. Most ominously, among myriad pieces of luggage is a black coffin. Her arrival in town, dressed all in angelic white, is like a visitation. As pragmatic as she is vengeful, she tells Anton what will happen after he’s killed: “I shall take you in your coffin to Capri. You will have your tomb in the park of my villa, where I can see you from my bedroom window. . . . You are mine alone, at last and forever.”
John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, who furnished scores for Cabaret,” “Chicago” and “The Kiss of the Spider Woman” (the last two also starring Rivera), are obviously no strangers to serious, even degenerative theater. Having dealt with Nazis, mobs and discrimination, they’re right at home with grotesqueries.
True, their score lacks the bite that someone like Kurt Weill would have brought to this Brechtian tale. But “You, You, You” is lovely and “Yellow Shoes” is invigorating. If some lyrics feel soft around the edges (“Money can’t erase / The terror that you face”), so does the musical’s re-naming of the town from the original Güllen, meaning “sewer,” to the less caustic Brachen.
Written in 1956, only a few years after World War II, Dürrenmatt’s drama has a thematic connection to that conflict. Half-Gypsy, half-Jewish in this version, Claire, once an outcast in the town, has amassed enough wealth through a series of husbands to insure her power, giving people what they outwardly reject yet secretly desire. If she is not granted justice, she will buy it. Power rests not in loving but conquering, as the oppressed becomes the oppressor. “I can afford a new world order,” she says, a remark not far removed from what the Nazis promulgated.
Rivera, looking smashing in designer Ann Hould Ward’s fur-trimmed outfit, is commanding. When, as Claire, she says, “I’m unkillable,” it’s Rivera who reaps a huge round of appreciative applause. No, the 81-year-old Rivera can’t do those high kicks anymore, although choreographer Graciela Daniele has given her a shimmering pas de deux with her younger self. Further, her husky singing voice could use repair. But her stage chops have not diminished, even though the original material has been romanticized by Terrence McNally and is less chilling than when the Lunts so magnificently acted the parts of Claire and Anton.
Roger Rees is superb as Anton, a man without sentimentality who eventually accepts his fate. As such, he rises to tragic hero status, a role Rees eases into, earning pity and forgiveness for his early callousness. Standing out are the rich-voiced Jason Danieley as the schoolmaster and David Garrison as the town’s mayor.
At Williamstown, John Doyle directs with an eye toward balancing the work’s swings from tragedy to dark comedy, not letting the evening get too bleak. To this purpose, he inserts an attractive young Claire and Anton who observe and sometimes participate in the action, keeping romance to the forefront.
Credits are top-notch, from Ward’s costumes to Japhy Weideman’s creepy lighting, Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design, David Loud’s conducting of Larry Hochman’s orchestrations and, especially, Scott Pask’s ominous setting: a series of massive, diminishing columns, reminders of a decaying railroad station. Tendrils crawl up its façade, punctuating its forbidding solidity. It’s the perfect metaphor for a tale that is both real and surreal, optimistic and pessimistic, resilient and despairing. Much like life.
--David A. Rosenberg
Aug. 7, 2014