When I was little, we used to have a fish tank that I hated. Still, I felt compelled to watch the slimy creatures, swimming through their tiny world. Watching them watching me triggered a sort of existential crisis -- in charge, perhaps, of a world I didn't understand but with the nagging sensation of being watched. If them, I thought of the stupid fish, why not stupid me, as well?
This flashback was brought to me -- and you -- courtesy of Quantum Theatre's production of "Therese Raquin." It's staged in the swimming pool of Carnegie Library, Braddock. The audience sits on risers built over the pool and the actors are below, literally and metaphorically in the deep end. They are fish in a tank, rats in a maze, bodies on display for the sole purpose of observation.
It's an arrangement that might have thrilled Emile Zola, who saw his 1867 novel and subsequently self-adapted play as a scientific inquiry. His preface to the novel's second edition reads like a manifesto of naturalism in which he says he studies people "as a surgeon might in an operating theatre."
- Where: Quantum Theatre at Carnegie Library, Braddock.
- When: Through Oct. 14; Wed-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 4 and 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m.
- Tickets: $25-$30 (students $15); 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org.
Nicholas Wright's 1990 adaptation, rather than capturing the cool scientific study Zola says he wrote, emphasizes the Gothic elements of "Therese Raquin," especially as the play reaches its frenetic climax. In spite of Zola's contentions, there's a lot of melodrama here, with echoes of "Macbeth" and even Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." After the adulterous Therese and her lover, Laurent, murder Therese's husband, Camille, their world becomes an expressionist manifestation of their guilt.
That's obvious on Tony Ferrieri's sparse set. The white tiles of the pool's floor and walls, which form the Raquins' apartment, are picked up in a large, dominating staircase. Director Rodger Henderson often allows action to cease as someone climbs or descends the stairs, making obvious the effort it takes to leave or return to this world.
Intricate Gothic chandeliers hang at varying lengths, one almost touching the floor. Other than these lights, the room is almost bare, a grand ballroom on a sunken ship, with all hints of the luxurious, the joyful, the personal already washed away by the devouring waves.
Little light enters this cave. Designer Scott Nelson keeps the room murky, as if the characters are underwater, struggling against whatever gloom weighs them down.
The only light enters with the Raquins' friends, who provide welcome moments of comic relief, showing up often, but especially on Thursdays for tea and a game of dominoes.
David Cabot is Monsieur Michaud, the retired policeman who relishes his intelligence but ends up being a bit of a dupe. Cabot's performance is appropriately understated, making Michaud seem more acted upon than acting, a good naturalist specimen of the psyche.
Gayle Pazerski plays Michaud's effervescent niece, Suzanne. Pazerski stresses Suzanne's youth and frivolity, a lovely counter to Therese's dark world.
Most of the humor in the play is driven by Joe Warik, whose Monsieur Grivet is the consummate fool. Warik milks his character's obsessive attention to detail, making much out of the precise placement of his umbrella and the small luxuries that accompany his visits.
But Therese's world isn't a place of laughter and light, and Mark D. Staley shows Camille to be the dolt for thinking it is. Henderson has the characters enter with Camille laughing outrageously at some unknown joke or event. It goes on and on, the laughter of an irritating buffoon. Staley plays this buffoon to the hilt but manages to be sympathetic.
Camille is, as Zola intended, a product of his environment, a sickly childhood and overprotective mother. Mary Rawson plays the manipulative Madame Raquin with a nasty passive-aggressive streak. But when she disintegrates, Rawson makes her body the repository of all the black emotions that compel the action and her twisted agony is truly frightful.
Nothing is more frightful, though, than Robin Walsh's Therese. Walsh is the epitome of control, her Therese almost unnaturally still, with stiff posture and uninflected voice. A time bomb, she explodes in Therese's brief moments of passion and her entire physicality sinks and falls in upon itself as Therese drowns in her guilt, to the accompaniment of Elizabeth Atkinson's splashing soundscape.
Hugo Armstrong equals Walsh's transformation. His Laurent is charming, affable, but eventually unloosed, first by passion and later by guilt. Both are gripping, but like a violent accident, not a thing of beauty.
In spite of Zola's stated intentions and the godlike position of superiority created by Quantum's staging, it's impossible not to be moved by "Therese Raquin." What god wouldn't be moved by the helpless flailings of his sinking subjects? And what subject wouldn't quiver under an assumed and watchful eye?
Anna Rosenstein is a freelance reviewer.