A Stendhal Misstep

Adaptations of great novels for the theater have a pretty spotty record. Among big-budget, nonmusical successes, only Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Steppenwolf’s The Grapes of Wrath come easily to mind. However, in the last decade Moby-Dick and The Turn of the Screw had imaginative, shoestring productions Off-Off-Broadway, and director Deloss Brown, in staging Stendhal’s great novel, The Red and the Black, has chosen the bare-bones approach for his own script, using only several chairs, a cloth backdrop, and a minimum of props. The unwieldy result suggests that Stendhal's novel isn't a natural for the stage. The story follows Julien Sorel, a young man of 19 who worships Napoleon, but in secret. In 1826 France, with the royalists back in power under conservative King Charles X, any mention of Napoleon may mean arrest and imprisonment. “Under the Emperor, a man could make his way by his talents,” explains Julien ardently. “Napoleon—poor—with no friends—made himself master of the world with his sword. But nowadays the army’s for the rich, and a priest makes three times as much money as one of Napoleon’s generals.” Thus Julien, whose father and brothers beat him for his love of learning, has determined that becoming a cleric will give him the means to escape his horrid family. Before Julien takes his vows, though, his mentor, Father Chélan (Jeremy Johnson), arranges for him to become a tutor to the de Rênal family.

M. de Rênal (Brian Linden) has little interest in whether Julien can educate his child, but he hires the young man because of a bitter social rivalry with M. Valenod (Keith Herron). Valenod, a crass lecher, has some fancy horses that give him cachet among the aristocracy, but, exults de Rênal, “His new Norman horses won’t matter. His children don’t have a tutor!”

Once installed as a trophy instructor, the 19-year-old Julien soon discovers that de Rênal’s wife, Louise, who is ten years older than he, is attracted to him. Eventually, Julien decides he should have experience of a worldly kind, namely an affair with Louise. Happily, the strikingly youthful Lucas Wells conveys Julien’s confidence, apprehension, and philosophical observations, along with a sly rakishness, in a measured and well-spoken performance, and one follows the hero eagerly when he is on stage.

Unfortunately, most of the other performers seem to struggle with their parts. Brown relies on the actors to narrate large chunks of the story in an abundance of monologues. Two or three characters in succession will have a monologue, then a scene will follow, often brief, sometimes not. At times actors enter to deliver a single line, or swerve in and out of a scene to speak to the audience. The dizzying staging adds an air of desperation: it's no wonder many of the actors veer toward Dickensian caricature, particularly Linden and Krista Adams Santilli as the cuckolded husband and neglected wife.

As the peremptory, snippy de Rênal, Linden is, according to the situation, appalled or comically grateful that Julien, “a servant,” has his way. (The vaguely Edwardian costumes of Lux Haac manage to convey the social backgrounds of the characters effectively, though the maid’s above-the-knee outfit seems ill-judged.) Santilli as Louise displays little sense of period movement or grace. She might have stepped out of Sex and the City, and she makes Louise so whiny and mercurial that you wonder why Julien doesn’t just take a vow of celibacy on the spot.

When the play works best, as in a garden scene with Louise, Julien, and Louise’s cousin Marie (embodied by Jessica Myhr with poise and intelligence), it allows some breathing space and a build-up of dramatic momentum. But then the rapid-fire pace resumes.

In spite of the haste, the show exceeds the posted running time by at least ten minutes. One suspects that the chief problem is that Brown is loath to cut his own script. Hypocrisy, Voltaire, wealth, aristocracy, and politics—in spite of assurances by Stendhal and his editor (Herron and Linden, respectively) at the outset that politics will be kept to a minimum—are  touched on rather more frequently than seems necessary. An amusing remark de Rênal makes about women as machines is quite funny the first time; the second time, not so much; the fourth time, it thuds. A different director might have done a better job in helping Brown condense the novel. In this case, however, The Red and the Black more aptly applies to a checkered production.

Photo by Hunter Canning

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