In an effort to bring you the best of the Columbia arts world, we sent Bwog theatre critic and Flaubert enthusiast Joe Milholland to last night’s showing of the Barnard Theatre Department’s production of Madame Bovary. Additional showings are tonight at 8:00 and Saturday at 3:00 and 8:00, with tickets available here.
As I was reading the Lydia Davis translation of Madame Bovary at the age of fifteen, I discovered, from a passage describing Charles Bovary’s feelings as he sees his sleeping daughter, my first truly profound connection with literature. In the passage, I felt for the first time in my life the appeal of raising a child. I still today never want to become a father, but I will never forget the shaking of my conscience from the introduction of those profound and beautiful feelings.
The Barnard Theatre Department’s stage adaptation of the same translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary this weekend doesn’t include the scene of Charles observing his daughter. A 75-minute adaptation of the novel, it naturally cuts a lot out. We see the greatest hits of the novel: the marriage between Charles Bovary (Alex Taylor), a simple country doctor, and Emma (Dominique Koo), a middle-class woman known for her beauty, descends into boredom and suffering for Emma, who carries out an affair with a womanizer, Rodolphe (Schuyler Van Amson), and then a law clerk, Léon (Devin Lloyd). The play highlights the most dramatic of these ups and downs of Emma’s life as she tries to make her ordinary country existence the stuff of the melodramatic novels she so enjoys.
In order to compress all the events of the novel, director Kyle DeCamp does not so much as reinvent the play as regress it, having the actors read the narration of the novel out loud as well as the dialogue. When the narration has no particular point of view, several actors read it at once, each taking different lines. Sometimes several speak the same line in unison.
The narration has the echoes of the Greek chorus, but unfortunately also a primary school “reader’s theater” production. It’s the worst part of the play. While the concept comes from a love of Flaubert’s prose, to display it with such a distracting technique does it no service. Plus, some of Flaubert’s best descriptions are left out; we are told Emma visited Léon in secret by pretending she was going to piano lessons, but we are not told that, during this period, her skills where thought to have improved.
The set and costumes are no better, neither quite within mid-19th century France nor markedly away from it. Every character seems to be half dressed, and the lighting at one points becomes rather dim for a daytime scene.
The riskiest move of the production, however, is also its greatest asset. At various times throughout the show, images from film adaptations of Madame Bovary are projected onto large white sheets and serve as the background for on-stage events. Not at all a hackneyed way to build a world without doing any work, as the most basic description might imply, the images instead become a part of the life of the play. A ball in the country transforms into a whirlwind of emotion for Emma by the constant projection of the room spinning as Emma dances with an attractive stranger.
Given that all the characters are essentially stating out loud their subtext, the actors all lack a goal to play to, and the cast compensates for this in various ways. Christina Beck, playing the pompous, pretentious doctor and intellectual Monsieur Homais, and the always seductive Van Amson decide to ham it up, doing their full selves at every line. It works deliciously and never detracts from the pessimism and discomfort of the play.
Most of the other actors attempt an awkward balance between narration and acting. As Emma’s narrow-thinking husband, Taylor conveys Charles Bovary’s timidness and then turns to the audience to state the harsh truth. She carries this balance the best among the cast, although we never see as much of the internal drama of Charles as in the novel.
Koo, in the lead role, tries to combine her narration into the goal of winning us over into her illusions and delusions. Since Koo and DeCamp are so intent on dramatizing Emma’s self-deception, every scene becomes a climax. This strategy has the effect of making the second act much better than the first. Emma’s lies and turmoils take a while to build, and Koo shines best when Emma is a state of true distress while still attempting to compose herself. At these moments the audience can feel Emma pushing against her own limits, and this complexity Koo brings is the play’s best asset. That her surroundings portend her doom only adds to Koo’s ability to portray Emma’s base wants in her tightly restricted social status.
Madame Bovary, as a novel, has a tone that projects the air of “art for art’s sake” with luscious descriptions seemingly satisfied with their own beauty rather than any deeper message. But in theme, it’s the least “art for art’s sake” story possible – a harshly realistic tale of disappointment, the low status of women, and the crushing restrictions of human experience. DeCamp’s adaptation is often so successful for such a strange performance because it doesn’t mess with Flaubert’s formula. The beauty of the surface matters, and the hardness and coldness inside flows out naturally. The best scene of the production is a visit to an opera house expressed through the reactions on the faces of Emma and the rest of the cast. After a time, the footage of the opera itself is projected behind the actors, but only to show how much more beautiful the image of regularity is than what is taking place on stage. Perhaps this pursuit of beauty in all the mundanity and misery of life is the only way for art to transmit emotions that would otherwise be alien to its audience.