Live Bait Theater

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the legend of Svengali is its continuing appeal. George du Maurier’s 1894 novel, Trilby, holds out the thrilling possibility of completely controlling a beautiful person, of taking over his or her will. We’ve all had that fantasy, especially on Saturday nights.

In du Maurier’s novel, the lovely victim is Trilby O’Ferrall, a young artist’s model living in Paris, so attractive that she’s loved by three English art students. But when Trilby breaks off her engagement to one of them (William Bagot, called “Little Billee” in the novel) because his family thinks it a disgrace to wed a girl who sheds her clothes for painters, she succumbs to the sinister Hungarian musician Svengali.

Under his malign, hypnotic influence, Trilby becomes a famous singer, called “La Svengali” after her “manager.” She’s capable of a four-octave range whenever Svengali moves his hypnotic hands, almost choking out her notes, but when Svengali dies of heart failure, Trilby loses her voice. Having already lost her soul, she sickens and dies–just when Billy promises to marry her at last. Like Antonia, the haunted singer in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, the creature does not dare to outlive its creator.

Yes, it’s xenophobic and misogynistic, but the story of Svengali’s fatal attraction and Trilby’s corruption (she’s a sort of female Faust) fascinates as well as repels. Inherently theatrical, du Maurier’s best-selling novel inspired a successful stage adaptation; film versions followed, the most famous John Barrymore’s 1931 Svengali.

Of course this is a magnificent mismatch, the greasy, unkempt Hungarian and the demurely voluptuous Trilby, in the same league as Quasimodo and Esmeralda, or the Phantom of the Opera and his unwilling Christine. But strangely, these two also complement each other, the unformed artist’s model and her beggarly and despised foreigner. Svengali’s one real passion is for music and the perfect voice to bring it to life. Like many women of the time, Trilby has no voice of her own; she thinks her feet are more interesting than she is. When she’s forbidden to marry her Billy, Trilby in effect empties out–which makes her ripe for Svengali’s demon possession.

Her nemesis promises to take away her pain and “set her free.” But it’s only her voice he frees–by flattery (“The roof of your mouth is like the dome of the Pantheon”), and by subliminal suggestion. And though Svengali sings–through her–music he could never perform on his own, he can’t win her. Only when he briefly convinces her he’s Billy can he gain even a kiss. No necrophiliac, Svengali laments, “Asleep she is mine. But how much pleasure can you have from a corpse?” The problem is, if you turn your beloved into an automaton, she can’t be free to choose you. At the same time, Trilby’s easy surrender of her soul reveals how little she had to give up. As Svengali tells her, “You rule because you will not resist.”

A Live Bait Theatrical Company premiere that’s billed as “a tale of art, domination, and lust,” John Ragir’s adaptation rightly takes du Maurier’s period piece deadly seriously; he knows how to resist at any cost the audience’s desire to reduce this to camp mockery. Unfortunately, it’s not clear from this retelling just which tale from Trilby lies at the heart of La Svengali: is it the conventional Victorian story of Billy’s failure to defy his family’s snobbery and claim Trilby as his own, or the timeless seduction by which Svengali invades and destroys her soul? Both get equal emphasis in Ragir’s adaptation, but the Svengali story is the interesting one. We see too little of Svengali’s modus operandi, too much of Billy’s elaborate remorse.

Fortunately Larry Neumann Jr., with his neurasthenic intensity and sepulchrally sallow face, makes Svengali’s plight more than melodrama. (He also gives a whole new meaning to the concept of voice control.) Neumann’s spellbinding Svengali is a sad, congealed thing who can justify the suicide of a student by spitting out, “She had no voice.” Registering the isolation as much as the mania, Neumann makes us think twice about which character is the one possessed. He lifts this production above itself.

Like the script, Amy Ludwig’s staging suffers longueurs that show it’s not clear what’s crucial. That’s also evident in Elizabeth Thompson’s unintentionally unformed Trilby. Thompson’s is a febrile creature, more like a sickly Dresden china shepherdess than the sensuous beauty who wins all hearts. And however charming Thompson’s bell-like soprano in “Plaisir d’amour,” you wouldn’t give up your soul for it. The only pathos here is that a woman who had no personality when she was loved is just the same when she becomes a robot. Ludwig is wrong to assume that Trilby’s heart-hungry longings can be suggested by passivity and posing.

As Billy, John Mossman nicely conveys his character’s disgust when he finally sees his family’s classist English hypocrisy. But in the love scenes, Mossman forces his feelings; it’s hard to gauge Billy’s loss. Tom White brings pluck and a good accent to Trilby’s second admirer, Taffy, but Betsy Freytag as Billy’s mother and a sorely miscast Ted Bales as his uncle verge perilously on caricature; Bales’s sneer could suck up a sundae.

In the past, Live Bait’s sets have been their calling card, but Salvatore Tagliarino’s crude backdrops and color-clashing drapery aren’t up to snuff. Sharon Evans Ragir’s costumes are period perfect, and Thomas Hase’s lighting valiantly alters and decorates the set–and that can only be a blessing.