Friday, August 5, 2016

"The Awakening"

The Awakening
Adapted by Oren Stevens (from novel by Kate Chopin)

The Cast of "The Awakening"
“There’s so much I cannot understand about myself ... my motives ... I have no grand plan.”  But Edna Pontellier is very willing to explore new boundaries and to break a few along the way as she mostly ignores late-nineteenth-century societal rules of what is proper and obligatory for a New Orleans woman of her genteel class.  Something has created a new spark and longing within her at the Grand Isle, the beachside resort where she, her husband, and two young children spend their summers – something that causes her to stay outside on a hammock late into a sultry summer evening, to the shock of husband and friends.  After all, this is the post-Victorian, post-Reconstructionist, fully Creole South; and a woman is supposed to be mostly where her husband and children are, attending to their needs and biddings.  A woman musing aimlessly at the stars in the night air is just not normal.  What will husband and friends think when she suddenly decides to take a swim in the dark ocean, even though she cannot actually swim?

And so opens the deliciously enticing, richly woven in words and images world premiere by The Breadbox of Oren Stevens’ adaptation of Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening.  Controversial and with mixed critical acclaim in 1899, the novel became acclaimed by later feminists everywhere as daring and groundbreaking. 

The appearance among this set of vacationing friends of a Robert Lebrun jolts Edna’s equilibrium and helps her to realize there is more to life than being a wife and a mother, however important those roles may be.  “I will not lose myself in my children ... I would give my life for my children, but I cannot give myself,” she confesses to her best friend and confident, Adele.  As her husband travels on business, Edna begins her own journey of launching into a career of painting, of moving out of the family mansion full of servants into her own four-room cottage, and of seeking – demanding – illicit love to satisfy new awareness of who she really is.  “I have been possessed by thousands of emotions, and I can’t think about any of them,” she admits as she plunges headstrong into paths with uncertain ends.

Inner Voices Approach Edna (Maria Giere Marquis)
The invention and ingenuity that Oren Stevens and director Ariel Craft (who assisted in the play’s development) employ in mounting this classic novel on the stage turn an interesting-enough story into an all-engrossing, captivating evening of live theatre.  The characters of Edna’s life become also the voices in her head, as actors surround her whispering, bantering, even shouting their conflicting reactions to what she is contemplating to say or do.  “Say what you feel,” “think about the children,” “don’t push it,”  “let her speak” the voices argue, prod, and probe.  Ariel Craft is joined by Margery Fairchild in creating mesmerizing choreographed scenes like Edna’s midnight swim in the ocean where she glides into the water, dives under the waves, and floats on its surface all thanks to the dance-like movements, supports, and lifts by other cast members.  Clever movements of heads, bodies, and chairs occur often in unison to accent remarks made by Edna, acting like visible, real-time italics and exclamation points to accent the audacity of her statements.  “I don’t need to listen to any thoughts I don’t want to,” she exclaims; and the director’s astute plan ensures that we get the point in many ways.

As Edna, Marie Giere Marquis expresses a myriad of emotions through vivid facial expressions that make full use of every possible ounce of her high-boned cheeks and her lips that purse, widen, and crunch according to the mood.  Eyes pop, swoop, and fall in intense gaze while she voices excitedly, pensively, and painfully all that is bubbling up inside her.  Her struggles between her duties as wife/mother and those to herself are played out with a wedding ring that she takes off with increasing frequency and fervor, at one point roaring at it with hurricane force for all that it represents that she both loves and maybe hates.  The intensity Ms. Marquis brings to her Edna is palpable and powerful; and her overall performance is worthy of note and award.

Edna is stimulated to her explorations of self largely by the unconventional Robert Lebrun, a man who himself might say just about anything that polite society would surely raise an eyebrow to.  Early on, he tells her, “I’m trying to turn you into the kind of woman who loves her for who she is;” and he does that by a combination of crazy clowning, subtle flirting, and tempting suggestions (like a forbidden swim at night).  Justin Gillman often looks up and away as if in his own dream world before turning to smile a half-mile-long smile as he acknowledges his unspoken attraction to Edna.  His sudden outbursts of loud laughs or angry rebukes are countered by his contemplative fixed looks and downturns of the eyes.  His Robert is a wonderful mixture of daring and reserve, of pushing some social mores but of firmly holding on to others dealing with marital propriety.

Elliot Lieberman, Maria Giere Marquis, Genevieve Perdue, Justin Gillman, Kirsten Peacock
The rest of this talented cast each plays an important part in making this production such a winner.  Robin Gabrielli is Edna’s sincere, serious husband Leonce, oft-exasperated with her inattention to him and the children yet still mostly guarded and measured in his aristocratic reactions.  Never guarded is Adele Ratignolle (Kirsten Peacock), Edna’s friend whose sunny disposition shines in glowing smiles and sparkling eyes and whose own strict definitions of motherhood obligations do not keep her from accepting, if admittedly not understanding, Edna and her new ventures into self-discovery. 

Knowing looks from her usually stern face and raised eyebrow but also quietly accepting and even encouraging of Edna’s non-conventional choices is Mademoiselle Riesz, played with an air of mystery and mischief by Genevieve Perdue.  Elliot Lieberman rounds out the ensemble as Alcee Arobin, a man whose handsome looks, quiet smirks, and deeply piercing gazes scream of his willingness for an assignation with Edna; and although his words never utter such an invitation, none is needed for her to accept.  

With sand and a deck and structures of weathered wood, Carlos Aceves has created a setting that allows the beautiful sound effects of Liz Ryder to lure us to the ocean’s edge, all further enabled by Keira Sullivan’s lighting.  Waves hit the shore and bullfrogs creak while sea birds fly overhead.  A gospel choir sings somewhere in the deeps and horses clop along the cobbled streets of New Orleans, with its houses denoted by a frames of windows, both hollow and full of stained glass.  All in all, by the time we take in Julie Gotsch’s period dresses with their cotton petticoats and the dress suits and beachwear becoming to the gentlemen of the time, this production team has created a full environment where the salty air and sultry humidity are almost real in the intimate, Exit Theatre that is home to The Breadbox.

One enters any world premiere with both excitement and trepidation since any first outing of a new work may or may not work as planned on paper.  In the case of The Awakening, script, direction, casting, and production have ensured that something close to perfection has been hit from the start of what will hopefully be many reprises.

Rating: 5 E

The Awakening continues through August 20 in world premiere by The Breadbox at Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at

Photos by Rebecca Hodges Photography

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