I've never liked hearing actresses' performances described as "strong but fragile." That combination of descriptors has always felt like a double standard from another era, when broads had to be tough enough to join their leading men on their adventures but weak enough to cry when they get left behind--all while wearing heels and a garter belt, not a hair out of place.
But they're adjectives I have to use to describe Caitlyn Louchard's stunning performance in the Cutting Ball's current production of Pelleas and Melisande, a Symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck. As Melisande, a princess of mysterious origin and overcome by ineffable grief, Louchard actually exudes power through her vulnerability, her molten, glistening eyes at once brimming with tears and blazing with defiance. She is small and innocent, but Louchard wields that innocence like a force field: all are in awe, and none can touch.
Four men's desires to break that force field drive the ostensible plot of Maeterlinck's fantasy. There's Golaud (Derek Fischer), a widowed prince who encounters Melisande weeping in a forest and marries her shortly thereafter. There's his grandfather Arkel (Paul Gerrior), who says, "sometimes the old need to touch their lips to the forehead of a young woman or the cheek of a child in order to believe again in the freshness of life and put the menace of death to rest for a moment." There's his son Yniold (Jessica Jade Rudholm), who finds his delicate stepmother a more comforting parent than his increasingly violent father. And then there's his brother Pelleas (Joshua Schell), whose preternatural but childlike connection with Melisande exposes the cracks in Golaud's affable façade.
While that love triangle makes for some of the production's juiciest scenes, traditional power dynamics and plot devices are not Maeterlinck's focus. The playwright, who first published Pelleas and Melisande in 1890, is much more concerned with investigating the soul, with giving voice to the tremulous apprehensions that spring from nothing logical and, for most of us, quickly dissipate or get dismissed as silly.
Here, a sleepy child's half-hearted remark that he saw something outside gets an urgent, fervent response from his elders; the suggestion that outside the insular castle all the peasants are starving garners about the same reaction as an unwanted touch (of which there are many). Every observation in this world is pregnant with contagious dread; every character feels in danger or about to weep. And to communicate the dull ache of constant trepidation, Maeterlinck uses lines so descriptive that they're nearly impossible to deliver, like, "This rock is heavy!... It's heavier than I am... It's heavier than everyone... I can't lift it... and nobody will be able to lift it... It's heavier than the whole house..."
But Melrose, who directs his own, new translation of the play, creates so immersive an aesthetic experience that one can engage with the production on Maeterlinck's terms despite extreme difficulties in the script. Above the stage hangs a line of gauzy veils through which Wesley Cabral's atmospheric graphic designs--a pastel sunset, a starry night--are projected, the image growing and shrinking and going into and out of focus as it progresses through each piece of fabric, a process echoed by composer Cliff Caruther's haunting, pulsating soundscape.
Below is Michael Locher's set, a long, wooden plank that bisects the theater, with three rows of audience on either side, focuses all motion on a single axis. Along it, Laura Arrington's imaginative choreography creates spaces--a floor seems to rotate ninety degrees to become the wall of a tower--and heightens drama: She finds so many ways of suggesting proximity that Melisande and Golaud don't actually stand next to each other until near the end of the play. At that point, Golaud doesn't just tower over Melisande; he can actually curl his body over hers so that he is both wall and ceiling closing in on her. It's as though they're two different species: the dragon and the damsel in this fairytale of a play.
Not every choice serves. Sometimes Fischer's Golaud becomes so comical in his forced good cheer--commenting on a wound, he delivers the line, "I might bleed some more," as though saying, "I might get a raise," with false humility--as to controvert the reality of Melrose's carefully constructed mise-en-scene. And Melisande's form-fitting, low-backed dress, by costume designer Raquel Barreto, feels a little too sexy for a character repeatedly described as a "child," even a "baby."
But it does create a breathtaking image. To simply watch Louchard be present, in that dress, on that stage, is to discover the drama inherent in the still, the slow and the soulful.
Pelleas and Melisande continues through Nov. 27 at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), S.F. Admission is $10 - $50.
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