Talking Hearts

The Storm Theatre Company, together with the Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, presents Paul Claudel’s Noon Divide in an elegant, minimalist production co-directed by Peter Dobbins and Stephen Logan Day. Paul Claudel’s agony-filled ménage-à-quattre is given a competent reading in a theatre located, perhaps appropriately so, in the basement of the Church of Notre Dame on 114th Street. Noon Divide opens with the four characters - Ysé (Kate Chamuris), her husband De Ciz (Brian J. Carter), Mesa (Peter Dobbins, who also co-directs) and Amalric (Chris Kipiniak) - on the deck of an ocean liner on its way to China. Mesa and Amalric both have known and harbored passions for Ysé, while her marriage has lost the spark of passion. Several months later they are in Hong Kong, where De Ciz pursues, with ultimately fatal consequences, his love of money, leaving Ysé behind. Ysé and Mesa engage in a passionate relationship that leads to the birth of a child.

By act three, Ysé has left Mesa and joined Amalric, the earthiest of the three men. China is in the turmoil of the Boxer Uprisings, and Ysé and Amalric have prepared to blow up their house and themselves to avoid death at the hands of the rebellious Chinese. Mesa finds the two. A struggle ensues in which Amalric takes Mesa’s free pass but drowns trying to board the boat to freedom. Mesa and Ysé, in the final moments before the house blows up, come to reconciliation with each other.

Theater always involves translation – from text to stage, author’s intent to director’s concept, casting and scenic realization. In a play that originated in a foreign language and culture, such as this one, additional challenges arise. Will the poetry of Claudel’s writing, his framing of characters as archetypes, and his negotiation of the conflicts among them in long, rhetorical passages translate to a stage in a church basement in 2010? (Incidentally – no translator is credited in the program!).

The production here is respectful. The bare center stage with a starry-sky surround behind the audience allows for more movement than the directors use. The interesting sound design is subtle (too much so – indicating where it could provide substantial texture and even information), and the well-executed lighting provides atmosphere for each of the scenes.

However, rhetorical theater, with its long tradition in French theater, is not the strength of American actors. Chris Kipiniak, only slightly hampered by a too-tight suit that contrasts with his not so comical character, gives Amalric power and vocal presence, and Peter Dobbins as Mesa provides a serious performance that errs only in investing too much in the self-flagellation that Claudel offers as a form of love. Ysé has the thankless role of the Madonna-Whore who becomes the object of the three men’s projections, a character given little agency by its author. She is underplayed by Kate Chamuris, who looks the part, but only in brief moments in Act One gives her the vivacious energy that would explain her desirability to the men who adore and revile her, often in the same sentence.

I don’t know if a case can be made for the production of this play, with its psychologically, morally and even theologically questionable search for the reconciliation of the love of God with the love of the pleasures of the flesh. This production, keeping all the passion above the neck, fails to make the case. Mesa, as Claudel’s stand in, is too tortured (he suggests that Ysé is the cross he crucifies himself on). The middle act – set in a ruined graveyard – provides the most passionate language, but the directors chose not to invest in the physical possibilities of the scene, and as rhetoric it fails to generate the heat that would warm our talked-out hearts in this cool presentation.

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