Stage Review: Quantum surrounds Hartwood Stables with beauty of 'Meaulnes'
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Another world premiere -- the third in a row for Quantum Theatre -- and maybe you're thinking, every time my kid gets up on the coffee table, that's a world premiere, too.
Sure. But this is Quantum, one of our most adventuresome, accomplished pro companies, so "world premiere" means something. And in the case of this famous novel from France, "Le Grand Meaulnes," and a noted adaptor-director-composer team from England, the "world" part means even more.
But before I get into that, I want to wax rapturous about the most astonishing aspect of "Le Grand Meaulnes" -- its magical setting beside the hard-to-believe stables at Hartwood Acres. The company that always seeks a distinctive, nonconventional site for its plays has never found one more perfectly matched to its subject or more visually delicious in effect.Heather Mull
Sasha Higgins and Dan Amboyer in Quantum Theatre's "Le Grand Meaulnes."
Click photo for larger image.
'Le Grand Meaulnes'
When: Through Aug. 26; Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., also 8 p.m. Aug. 26.
Tickets: $25-$30; $15 students; 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org.
You may have been to concerts at Hartwood and to plays in the tent and the mansion itself, but the odds are you don't know the stables. I didn't. Arriving, you drive past the mansion, through the woods, and curve down the side of a small valley. There sits a cluster of stone buildings around a courtyard, looking like a small 18th-century European village.
The audience's chairs are on steep bleachers, providing a view, to the left, of the buildings and courtyard; to the right, of a country road; and straight ahead, over a lawn and rail fences toward a field, a large barn, horses grazing and the woods and hills beyond. The countryside and the town are intrinsic to the story about growing up and burning with a gem-like flame, but so is the road, to the story about journeying in search of romance and beauty.
For us, the setting makes that beauty tangible. Designer Tony Ferrieri didn't build the stables, but he helped arrange the elements.
Also beautiful is the original score by Dominic Muldowney. At first I thought the occasional underscoring was too much, too cinematic, but as the effect of Di Trevis' visually rich and fluid (OK, cinematic) direction gathers impact, the music and scenery fold around the story like an enticing exterior expressing an intriguing inner soul.
Even the large acting company of 13 (plus four children) is beautiful -- predominantly young and full of zest and energetic attack.
If you were to abstract the play, as adapted from the novel by Nigel Gearing, from Quantum's embodiment of it in setting, movement, performers and music, it would feel thin and its second act, melodramatic. That's not an issue for the French, I'm told, for whom Alain-Fournier's 1913 novel has the coming-of-age poignancy of "The Great Gatsby" or "Catcher in the Rye." Lacking that cultural identification, I notice the melodrama. But with so much going on to delight, it doesn't seem to matter much.
The story is of an unbridled young man, Augustin Meaulnes, who inspires his school mates with his daring and escapes the boring confines into a magical adventure in which he meets the love of his life. The rest of the play is his attempt to find her again, in spite of such barriers as convention, poverty, infidelity and jealousy.
At the end, Trevis flashes forward to the grim future that awaits that generation's youth. This fits the novel, which has that implicit end-of-an-era nostalgia, anyway.
For me, the play ultimately replicates the ache of loss and regret that I feel most in F. Scott Fitzgerald's other great novel, "Tender Is the Night." But along the way, there is such variety and richness in the visual images of performers and setting that regret never obliterates the joy of the journey.
The key to the staging and acting is the attack I mentioned. A pack of kids erupts from the building; a family tumbles around the corner with baskets of food and drink; Meaulnes runs pell-mell up the road. Life keeps jump-starting itself, one scene following another with explosive urgency, everyone arriving in passionate haste. I notice my notes are full of exclamation marks. This is Trevis' doing, aided by movement direction by Peter Kope of Attack Theatre.
Scenes mutate almost as in a dream: school benches become a bed; a wall serves as a boat; a village shop appears in an instant. Pei-Chi Su's costumes are full, colorful and in period. I found the sound very clear, which is remarkable outdoors. There's even a sort of reverb, probably set up by the buildings; if there's artificial amplification, I can't tell.
The play starts in daylight, with C. Todd Brown's lights just creating focus in one scenic area or another. Gradually dusk rises. Playful lights twinkle in trees or along the ground. When Act 2 begins, the stars are out, as if on cue. The darkness increases as the story saddens, artfully matching reality.
Dan Amboyer is the tall, ebullient Meaulnes, a torrent of desire. Joel Ripka plays his best friend, Francois, who envies his panache but tries to anchor him -- and us, since Francois also plays a narrator's role. Sasha Higgins (whose English accent, irrelevant to the play, is her own) and Lara Hillier bring spunk to Yvonne, Meaulnes' great love, and Valentine, his brief distraction. Others of college age play several roles.
Four older actors are also busy: Ingrid Sonnichsen (primarily Meaulnes' mother), Sheila McKenna (two sisters), Mark Conway Thompson (Pierrot and Yvonne's father) and Rick Kemp (school teacher and chief of some traveling players). All are fine, but Kemp's rascally vagabond and Thompson's beautifully physicalized old man are gems.
The robust comedy keeps romantic yearning in partial check. The tinkle of a music box may be a cliche, but it contributes to the pathos. Pathos is inevitable in the search for the lost paradise of first love, which is an attempt to get back to the Garden of Eden.
That's what this past is: an Eden we can visit only in imagination or memory -- or on stage.
First Published August 8, 2007 6:40 pm