Rules for Good Manners in the Modern World


at Prop Thtr

The Graden of Delights

Trap Door Theatre

More than 100 years before Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider came up with The Rules, a French baroness was concocting her own exhaustive guide to social rituals for well-bred (read: repressed) women. The Lady’s Dressing Room, written by Baroness Staff and first translated into English in 1893, contains waspish observations intended for “the woman anxious to preserve the love of the man of her heart [through] healthy–I might almost say, sacred–coquetry.”

In his droll 1994 comedy, Rules for Good Manners in the Modern World, Jean-Luc Legarce sends up the baroness’s feminine wiles and byzantine social regulations. Yet Lagarce’s take on them preserves the sense that the social rituals she describes are but flimsy fortifications against the incursions of fate and the messy extremes of human emotion. Each mention of disease, death, poverty, or some other disagreeable state is accompanied by the refrain that such conditions are “possible. Conceivable. It happens.”

Lagarce’s play (performed here in a translation by Andrew Berg and Marion Schoevaert) focuses on baptisms, weddings, and funerals. This U.S. premiere by TUTA (The Utopian Theatre Asylum)–staged as part of Playing French, the citywide festival of contemporary plays from France–accentuates the script’s tripartite structure by dividing the piece among three actresses. Only two of them actually speak, but under Zeljko Djukic’s carefully choreographed direction, they’re all in admirable sync. Natasha Vuchurovich Djukic’s set cleverly expresses women’s need to be simultaneously aware of themselves and of the judgment of the world: the audience is seated on either side of a raised platform resembling a fashion-show catwalk, with distorting fun house mirrors at either end of the playing area. Her costumes are beautifully off-kilter versions of Edwardian finery, abounding in ruffles and corsets and high collars but with fishnets and swirling patterned hose underneath, suggesting the hidden wild side of femininity.

Kate Martin takes the first part of the 90-minute (intermissionless) evening, describing the ideal convergence of circumstances for marking a child’s birth but striking a somber note when she reminds us that “if a child is born dead, you still have to register its birth and death.” No one escapes bureaucracy. She urges parents to choose young adults for the role of godparents in order to “increase your child’s future gifts and spare yourself some boring funerals.” The narrator is no less discerning when it comes to names: Maurice, meaning “son of the Moor,” should be avoided if “the mother frequented dancing schools with mulatto instructors.” In a comic highlight and departure from her understated wry tone throughout most of the evening, Martin runs through a list of the best loved saints’ names with increasingly orgasmic intensity. Then she seamlessly shifts back to her state of buttoned-down dignity.

Jennifer Byers takes the helm for the middle section, focused on a woman’s real career: getting married. The most important consideration, of course, is money. “Men of mediocre means shouldn’t volunteer for anything–godfather, fiance, head of household. It’s all for the best.” The preparations leading up to the wedding day are as complex as the plans for D-day and no less fraught with peril. Byers’s wide-eyed approach to the baroness’s myriad dicta is a suitable counterpoint to Martin’s sardonic, world-weary tone.

The nonspeaking performer, Dalia Cidzikaite, has a rubber face and a fluid physical presence that provide a comic contrast to the acerbic material. Also a skilled dancer, Cidzikaite pulls the other two women into a joyful cha-cha right after the wedding sequence. This lovely nonverbal interlude–which ends with the three holding hands and whirling like the living embodiment of Matisse’s dancing figures–is not only a welcome break from Lagarce’s occasionally maddening verbosity but a sly rebuttal of the baroness’s tight restraints on emotional expression.

As the women move into middle age, their sense of freedom increases, though the obligation of social playacting never disappears. Resuming the narration, Martin reminds us that “we celebrate the silver anniversary after 25 years of happy union. If the union isn’t happy, we celebrate anyway.” But by the 50th anniversary, Martin’s demeanor softens; there’s no hint of irony when she says the couple swear “they’d do it all over again.” The piece ends with widowhood–stripped down to their black slips, the actors smoke and croon into an old-fashioned microphone. After a lifetime of following ridiculous rules, old ladies know better than anyone how to have a good time. Lagarce never reached old age himself; he died of AIDS in 1995 at age 38, just after penning this gimlet-eyed but oddly affectionate look at social pretense.

Playwright Fernando Arrabal spits in the face of reason and good taste in his hallucinatory, sometimes delightfully disagreeable look at celebrity, madness, and sexual repression and oppression, The Garden of Delights. Trap Door Theatre’s entry in the Playing French festival represents the third time they’ve tackled Arrabal–and it’s the first production in their renovated Bucktown home. The seating is still a tight squeeze, and in the age of reality television Arrabal’s 1968 script has lost some of its oomph. But there’s one overwhelming good reason to make the trek to Trap Door: Virginia Worley.

Worley plays Lais, Arrabal’s Norma Desmond-like star, ensconced in her home with a small herd of sheep, a lustful monkey, and her tormented memories of convent school and her conflicted love for a classmate and a mysterious older man, Teloc. Her reveries are occasionally interrupted by phone calls from a smarmy entertainment reporter on a This Is Your Life-type program, who pulls up “audience members” (all played with over-the-top comic verve by Carolyn Shoemaker) to ask questions that send Lais even deeper into her psychic nightmare.

Worley’s bravura performance is one of the best I’ve seen this year. Lais is a physically and vocally exhausting role, and Worley is never less than mesmerizing–alternately or even simultaneously ridiculous, pathetic, tormented, dignified, giddy, manipulative, and utterly lost.

Arrabal’s overwrought play (in a translation by Tom and Helen Gary Bishop) is far darker than Lagarce’s comedy. Arrabal comes by his pessimism honestly: the Spanish-born playwright’s Republican father was betrayed by his Catholic mother during the Spanish civil war, went to prison, escaped, and disappeared from his son’s life forever. Arrabal has lived in France (writing mostly in French) since 1955, and like so many other expatriate playwrights in Paris–Beckett, Ionesco–he has a decidedly jaundiced view of human relations. When the tortured adolescent Lais erupts into a wish for “an enormous cauldron of boiling shit in which I’ll throw all the people who’ve made me suffer till now,” it’s funny–but Lais is essentially a potty-mouthed Marilyn Monroe. Stardom fails to confer happiness, we learn for the umpteenth time, and older men who seduce young girls don’t generally have the girls’ best interests at heart.

In his strongest passages Arrabal paints a stark picture of how often we destroy ourselves for people who can’t love us. Carl Wisniewski as the hairy ape is both heartbreaking and hilarious when he confesses to Lais, “Me bad. Me love you.” But his primitive yearnings aren’t that different from Lais’s plaintive cry to her cruel lover: “Put me in your pocket. Let me live there with your change. And when you buy your evening paper, you can pay for it with me.” Despite absurd touches like the jam jar in which Lais supposedly keeps her soul, Arrabal’s script is at its best when he simply lets these unbearably honest moments break through his play’s presentational, expressionistic facade.

Director Beata Pilch relies on strong visual elements to give variety to the show’s nearly two hours of histrionics. Lais’s beloved sheep–played by six actresses who, in Melanie Fehlberg’s deconstructed wedding dresses and blond wigs, resemble extras from Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” video–meet a shocking end in a scene drenched in bloodred lighting. Projected images depict various human cruelties, including the now iconic photo of Lynndie England pointing to the genitals of an Iraqi prisoner. But even Worley’s incredible talent and stamina can’t keep the show from running out of steam before the end. Arrabal is a clever chronicler of nihilism, but downbeat isn’t always deep. And when it gets hysterical, we’re reminded that the stoic good manners of Baroness Staff can be useful.

Rules for Good Manners in the Modern World

When: Through 11/28: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM

Where: Prop Thtr, 3502-4 N. Elston

Price: $12-$18

Info: 847-217-0691

The Garden of Delights

When: Through 11/28: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 11/7-28, 7 PM

Where: Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland

Price: $12-$20, $25 Sat 11/6 (includes postshow discussion with playwright)

Info: 773-384-0494

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Beata Pilch, Jacqueline Ston.