Chalk, a horizontal bar for acrobatics, yards and yards of gauzy fabrics, masks, an array of musical instruments, and five fearless actors are the main components of Boston Experimental Theatre Company's (BETC) production of "The Misunderstanding" by Algerian-born existentialist Albert Camus.
Written by a 29-year-old Camus in 1943 in Nazi-occupied France, "The Misunderstanding" reflects the bleakness of that period.
In a dreary country, where the people never smile, Martha (Lorna Nogueira) and her mother (Julie Dapper) run an inn where surcharges are not collected through over-priced mini-bars or videos on demand, but by murdering their wealthy lodgers. The mother wants to stop this activity ("I would like this to be the last. It's terribly tiring to kill") but Martha is especially desperate to raise the funds to move to a land with sunshine and sea.
Jan (Jared Wright), the son of this family who moved away to a prosperous life years before, has returned incognito, hoping for a loving reunion. His wife Maria (Hannah Cranton) is filled with foreboding and exhorts him to announce himself and simply tell them, "It is I."
"No one can be happy in exile or estrangement," Jan asserts, but though he's returned to offer his family financial assistance, he does nothing to help them recognize him. And so, because of his stubborn insistence that his family remember him without prompting, he's treated to the same poisoned tea that was served to so many lodgers before him.
"In the normal order of things, no one is ever recognized," Martha later tells Jan's grieving widow, belittling her grief by adding, "No grief of yours can ever equal the injustice done to man."
In the hands of BETC's artistic director, Vahdat Yeganeh, the straightforward plot is enhanced and heightened, involving every corner of the BCA's Black Box Theater as actors make direct eye contact with every member of the audience. Actors circle each other, spitting out their dialogue, providing a total panorama for the action, stylized gestures underscore the unnaturalness of the plot, and instead of breaking the fourth wall of dramatic convention, the action provides no wall at all.
When not on stage, actors sit along one side of the theater, hidden by white masks and robes, and provide a soundscape for the action, using simple percussive instruments (including a ball that lights when bounced), guitars and voice.
Prior to making their entrances, the actors prop their robes and masks onto stands, leaving these figures to watch the proceedings along with the audience.
Daughter Martha (Nogueira) never makes an entrance or exit without performing an acrobatic feat on the horizontal bar, and even uses a length of fabric to turn the bars into a swing.
Her manic frenzy is not only expressed through the words of the script (no translator is credited in the program) but through her frenzied slashings of chalk across the black surface of the stage.
Foreshadowing her deadly plan, Martha assaults Jan and knocks him to the ground, and even draws a chalk outline around him. And, when Jan grabs a piece of chalk and creates his own drawings, Martha gets very competitive and territorial, covering the floor with her own markings, using both hands and two pieces of chalk.
Jan also uses chalk to isolate Maria his wife outside the circle he's drawn, as he sends her away while he attempts to reinsert himself into his family. And Maria uses a bolt of silken fabric to physically bind him to herself as she argues with Jan to let her stay.
When Maria prays, "Oh heavenly father, have pity on those who are parted," the "No" uttered by the previously mute Old Manservant is echoed from all corners of the theater as the lights go out.
In his program notes, Yeganeh writes that their intent is "creating an environment allowing the spectators to engage in the performance as if they are sharing a dream."
With the repetitions and reverberations of "No" in the darkness, we all feel complicit in the ruination of hope or salvation.
(Seen September 18, 2011)