Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On-Stage: The Satin Slipper

Spanning oceans and bridging Heaven and Earth, Paul Claudel’s The Satin Slipper (or the Worst is not the Surest) is about as epic as it gets. With an equally epic original running time of nine hours (eventually trimmed by the playwright to a mere four and a half), it understandably rarely revived (though some hardcore cineastes might be familiar with Manoel de Oliveira’s 1985 film adaptation). Fortified with considerable ambition and wielding a ruthless editorial hand, the Black Friars Repertory and the Storm Theatre have mounted a lean production that clocks in just under the three hour mark. Appropriately, it has recently opened in the subterranean Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame, the traditional home of New York’s French Catholic community.

Following on the heels of last year’s The Tidings Brought to Mary (one of the year’s ten best independent productions), Slipper represents the second play mounted as part of the Blackfriars and Storm Theatre’s Paul Claudel Project designed to reintroduce the preeminent Catholic dramatist’s work to a contemporary audience. While Tidings casts issues of faith and redemption in the starkest possible terms, Slipper by contrast offers plenty of high tragedy, worldly intrigue, and old fashioned romance. Yet, the entire play is encapsulated in its evocatively staged opening scene, in which a Jesuit Father lashed to the mast of a sinking ship prays for the redemption of his impetuous younger brother, Don Rodrigo.

The Old World has discovered the New World and Spain rules the seas. However, her grip might be loosening somewhat. For Don Pelagio, it is a dubious honor to have the King’s confidence at such a time. He is being dispatched to shore up Spain’s African holdings at a time when his marriage is being sorely tested. The much younger Doña Prouheze has attracted the unwelcomed attention of Don Camillo as well as the reciprocated affection of Don Rodrigo.

With scenes divided between three continents, Slipper unfolds a grand story of a love defined more by its denial than its fulfillment. There is very definitely much pain and misery along the way, but it is never without meaning. In fact, at key junctures divine angels take a direct interest in these affairs of men.

Though the production evidently abridged about a third of Claudel’s own abridgment, director Peter Dobbins maintains the narrative thread fairly well throughout. Still, the large cast of characters can be a bit confusing as they enter and exit, only to often quickly die off stage. In fact, a fair amount of the storyline is revealed by an on-stage narrator, requiring a greater measure of concentration on the part of the audience. Yet, it very definitely builds to quite a memorable payoff—a Claudelian payoff rather than a crowd-pleasing romantic payoff to be sure—but a genuine payoff none the less.

The entire cast exhibits a strong affinity for Claudel’s rich text, particularly Harlan Work and Meredith Napolitano as the star-crossed Rodrigo and Prouheze, respectively. They convincingly err and suffer as required by fate, without coming across as stiffly symbolic figures. Also, Ross Degraw (who was excellent in Tidings) again brings a fittingly commanding presence as the noble Pelagio.

While undoubtedly more accessible than the challenging Tidings, the edited Slipper does not quite pack the same punch. Still, it is a lofty, inventively staged production, featuring some excellent performances. It also admirably underscores the depth and power of Claudel’s fascinating work. It runs at the Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame through February 6th.

(Photos: Michael Abrams Photography)