Court Theatre

By Justin Hayford

Every woman is as bitter as gall. But she has two good moments: one in bed, the other at her death. –Palladas

Where would Western culture be without misogyny? Just think: hardly any classical philosophy, rap music, or action films. No men’s lifestyle magazines, teen sex comedies, beauty pageants (excuse me, “scholarship competitions”), chewing-gum commercials, or game-show hostesses. Rick James would be a data-entry technician. Arnold Schwarzenegger an auto mechanic. Christie Hefner a legal secretary.

And Prosper Merimee, the reluctant French Romantic who used Palladas’s fifth-century quote as an epigram to his famous Carmen, would be an academic historian. Which probably would have suited him just fine. Praised at age 22 by the likes of Goethe and Chateaubriand, he was adored in Romantic circles for his exotic tales of “primitive” peoples (often those living next door in rural Spain) and “dangerous” women (a term many–including Court Theatre–have used to describe Carmen). Yet Merimee inherited the 18th century’s distrust of fiction, finding it a disreputable pursuit. By the age of 30 he’d produced almost all his fiction; he devoted the remaining 37 years of his life to writing histories, translating Gogol, and, as inspector general of historic monuments, running around France chronicling architectural treasures. Even when up to his elbows in the dreck of literature, he tried to maintain a respectable, pedagogical distance from his lurid creations; many of his stories contain copious footnotes, explaining, for example, that turron is “a kind of nougat,” that the character of Sampiero Corso can be found in book XI of Filippini, or that “Every Negro chief has his own war chant.” As he wrote in his History of Charles IX in 1829, “I wish I had the talent to write a history of France; if I had, I wouldn’t bother with stories.”

But bother he did, and in Carmen he created one of the most captivating of many regurgitations of an ageless misogynist fantasy, the femme fatale–or, in the words of the great cultural philosophers Hall and Oates, the man-eater–still guaranteed to deliver box-office returns, as the producers of Fatal Attraction well understood. The Oxford University Press, in its 1992 edition of Merimee’s collected stories, calls Carmen a woman “who exploits her sexuality and air of mystery to ensnare and destroy the unwary.” We’re led to believe that she sits around all day like a really pretty pit of quicksand waiting for hapless men to stumble by.

But Carmen holds up a century and a half after its creation precisely because Merimee didn’t wallow in the dames-is-nothing-but-trouble mind frame that seems to captivate the Oxford copywriters. Merimee’s Carmen could never be bothered to destroy “the unwary”; as a wandering Gypsy without homeland or family, she’s far too busy eking out an existence. She is utterly unlike the story’s blunt, unimaginative protagonist–the notorious outlaw Don Jose, who falls for Carmen like a grand piano dropped from the Eiffel Tower. Smart, intuitive, and resourceful, she’s always masterminding some elaborate operation to dupe some stuffy official into giving her exactly what she wants–or more accurately, what she needs to survive. In a world that hates Gypsies and treats women like hood ornaments or pack mules, Carmen never spends a moment under anyone’s thumb.

Of course, Merimee was no feminist. Like many of the women in his stories, Carmen is trouble precisely because she’s unpredictable and strong-minded. Merimee never seems to consider just how dangerous an insecure man like Don Jose is to her, however: after all, Don Jose kills her in cold blood. The worst she does, at least where he’s concerned, is toy with his affections. But Carmen is “dark” and untrustworthy, and the contemporary reader has to swallow a lot of racist and misogynist gall to enjoy the outlandish lure of the story.

James Robinson, the successful opera director who’s adapted and directed Carmen for the Court Theatre, talks a good line when it comes to adapting the story for a contemporary audience. In an interview with Stagebill he says, “Carmen is a strong, independent woman. [Bizet’s] opera portrays her as kind of evil. I don’t think she’s an evil person.”

So what does Robinson think of her? Well, from the looks of Court’s production, it seems he’s confused Carmen with a Gap model wannabe. As portrayed by Broadway alum Josie de Guzman, this featureless, could-be-anybody Carmen spends most of her time sitting with her legs apart, drinking wine straight from the bottle, clicking her castanets, and hissing at Don Jose. She has no objective beyond tormenting him, it seems, and precious little to do; in one of the few glimpses offered into her “Gypsy camp,” where one might imagine she and her fellow Gypsies work and strategize to maintain their nomadic existence, the actors simply pass their chairs in a circle for no discernible reason while chanting “Gypsy business, Gypsy business.” They may as well be chanting, “Peas and carrots, peas and carrots.”

This Carmen lacks even the femme fatale’s requisite inscrutable mind. While in Merimee’s story Carmen pierces any man’s intellectual armor, breaking Don Jose simply by insulting his overweening pride, onstage de Guzman displays none of Carmen’s psychological insight. To capture Don Jose, all she can think to do is rub his thighs, run his hand over her cleavage, and ride him like a pony. All of which drives him mad (he has nothing to do either). She’s not evil, but she’s no strong, independent woman either. This is Carmen the cock tease in her special appearance on the Robin Byrd Show.

Actually, I’m being generous. This is Carmen the nothing, paired with Don Jose the nobody. Neither de Guzman nor David New as Don Jose makes the slightest effort to give these characters inner lives. The two never have an honest moment together, even during their recurrent dry-humping sessions; they seem barely interested in each other despite wooden protestations to the contrary. The entire affair is overseen by a nameless narrator more concerned with speaking loudly and displaying his costume than with conveying a point of view or telling a story. This Carmen is 90 minutes of people standing on a poorly proportioned stage festooned with irrelevant organic shapes, saying words in the general direction of one another, bathed in a sickening glow the color of irradiated pond scum. The only real things here are the smell of the cigars the actors can’t seem to stop smoking and the trickle of water into an ugly little puddle downstage left.

There is only one way I can understand such embarrassing incompetence on an established Equity stage: everyone involved absolutely hates the show. At no time do any of the performers seem to be enjoying themselves. Rather, they seem to be merely getting by, never thinking beyond the simplest, most obvious choice, never expending an unnecessary calorie. When Carmen is killed in the play’s finale, de Guzman simply lies down onstage like she’s given up. She may as well be flipping Robinson the bird. It’s the one gesture deserving of applause.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Dan Rest.