Friday, June 17, 2011

THE VISIT • Stray Dog Theatre

After seeing this play, I could hardly wait to rush home and google Tragicomedy.  This 1956 play in three acts by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt presents some pretty absurd ideas, but getting sucked into how irrational ideas eventually become rationalized during the course of a story like this is chilling, but uncomfortably familiar at the same time.
As the play begins, the town of Güllen is gathered at the train station planning a grand welcoming for Claire Zachanassian (a commanding Julie Layton).  She's a billionaire home town girl who has scheduled a visit to her old stomping grounds.  With the loss of the town's industries, Güllen is drowning in its own poverty, and they hope that Claire might throw some bank their way.  Anton Schill (R. Travis Estes), who runs the general store, has been assigned the task of buttering her up.  She arrives early and catches the townsfolk off-guard.  After a blustery welcome by the Burgomaster (Jan Niehoff), Claire announces her intentions -- she is willing to offer 1 billion marks, half to the town and half to the citizens, in exchange for the life of one of the most popular guys in town.  That's right -- Anton Schill.  See, Anton and Claire were sweethearts back in the day, but Anton got her pregnant when she was 17.  Claire lost a paternity suit against Anton and turned to prostitution for awhile to get by after being forced out of town, so Claire's looking for some revenge.  I mean uh, justice.  The town is appalled and rejects her offer, but Claire asserts that she'll wait.

Bob Harvey (Bobby), R. Travis Estes (Anton Schill),
Julie Layton (Claire Zachanassian),
Kevin Boehm (Pedro) and Jan Niehoff (The Burgomaster).
Photo by John Lamb 
Claire, dressed in bright red from head to toe with matching fiery red hair, travels with quite an entourage.  In addition to husband number eight, Pedro, and Bobby the butler (an ex-magistrate now in her service), there's also a black panther, Kobby and Lobby (a couple of bizarre blind eunuchs, who long ago committed perjury in Claire's paternity suit -- now also in her service), a couple of muscular guys who cart her around in a sedan chair, and a coffin.

After awhile, Anton notices that folks are buying some pretty expensive items at his store, and they all request that their purchases be put on credit.  The citizens, day by day, are changing.  They're sporting new shoes and buying expensive cigars -- all on credit.  As Claire's influence on the town becomes more and more apparent, Anton becomes less and less sure of his safety.  The local police and the Burgomaster dismiss Anton's concerns about Claire's threat on his life, and the priest is more consumed with admiring the brand new church bell.  Once the town has run up enough debt to choke a horse, The Doctor and The Teacher go to Claire and ask for her assistance.  They urge her to forget her quest for revenge, I mean, justice, and invest in the town instead.  When Claire informs them that she practically already owns the town, the last two hold-outs for Güllen's humanity are swayed.

Stephen Peirick (The Station Master),
Shane P. Mullen (The Policeman),
Colleen M. Backer (Frau Burgomaster),
Julie Layton (Claire Zachanassian),
C.E. Fifer (The Conductor)
and Jan Niehoff (The Burgomaster).
Photo by Dan Donovan
It's a little unnerving to see how far people are willing to go for a buck, but under the bold and skillful direction of Gary F. Bell, it's hard not to get caught up in this dark tale of greed, revenge and corruption.  Julie Layton as Claire Zachanassian is compelling -- sinister and a little frightening.  R. Travis Estes is engaging as the doomed Anton Schill.  He comes off as the most human with the most to lose, yet powerless to alter his own future.  This was a talented cast all-around with strong performances by Jan Niehoff as The Burgomaster, Sarajane Alverson as The Teacher and Stephen Peirick as The Station Master.  The peculiar tone of the play is consistent throughout.  From the unusual movements of the cast, to Alexandra Quigley's fanciful costumes and Sarah Orloski's stylized makeup.  Tensions are heightened with Tyler Duenow's wonderful lighting and Justin Been's imaginative sound design.

If you're up for a little Theatre of the Absurd, this production is definitely worth checking out.


Written by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Adapted by Maurice Valency
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through June 25 | tickets: $18 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm

Julie Layton (Claire Zachanassian)
and R. Travis Estes (Anton Schill).
Photo by John Lamb
Julie Layton (Claire Zachanassian), R. Travis Estes* (Anton Schill), Bob Harvey (Bobby), Kevin Boehm (Pedro), Eric White (Max/Athlete/Reporter), C. Blaine Adams (Mike/Athlete/Camera Man), Jan Niehoff (The Burgomaster), Ryan Glosemeyer (The Pastor), Sarajane Alverson (The Teacher), Melissa Harris (The Doctor/The Fourth Man), Shane P. Mullen (The Policeman / The Second Man), Katie Puglisi (The Painter/The Photographer/The Radio Reporter), Stephen Peirick (The Station Master/The First Man), Jenni Ryan (Frau Schill/The First Woman), C.E. Fifer (The Son/The Conductor/Kobby/The Truck Driver), Olivia Light (The Daughter/Lobby) and Colleen M. Backer (Frau Burgomaster/Second Woman/Third Man).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Jay V. Hall; scenic artist, Teresa Dennis; sound and projection design by Justin Been; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; makeup/hair design by Sarah Orloski; costume design by Alexandra Scibetta Quigley; dramaturg, Janet Howe; stage manager, Justin Been.

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