Vicious Circle Productions

at Chicago Actors Ensemble

As the title suggests, The Cezanne Syndrome is a rather artsy play, or, better yet, artsy-fartsy. The playwright has attempted to imitate Cezanne, who recognized that what we call reality is actually a complex combination of raw sensory data plus our interpretation of it. Reproducing the surface of reality is not enough, according to Cezanne, because our perceptions can obscure the underlying structure of objects. The trick is to unify and harmonize disparate views of a scene, so that the finished product reveals what is beneath the surface.

This is what playwright Normand Canac-Marquis, a French Canadian from Montreal, is trying to do in The Cezanne Syndrome. He presents several views of the same story, and tries to bring them together to reveal the complexity of what’s going on. Now that might be interesting to Cezanne buffs, and maybe even to other playwrights, but anyone in the market for an engaging drama had best look elsewhere.

The Cezanne Syndrome revolves around Gilbert Martineau, an auto mechanic who is grieving over the loss of his girlfriend, Suzanne, and their four-year-old son, who were crushed to death when their compact car collided with a truck. Gilbert is disoriented and depressed, and the play’s disjointed structure reflects his state of mind. Fantasy and memories of Suzanne are intermingled with reality; scenes are presented out of sequence. The playwright is attempting to harmonize and unify the many aspects of grief into a single portrait of Gilbert’s relationship with Suzanne.

But there is little harmony or unity in The Cezanne Syndrome. Canac-Marquis is too caught up in the structure of the play, and too indifferent to its content. Although writing about grief, he displays no understanding of the emotion. Grief to him is merely the mortar for the impressive edifice he is trying to construct. His characters are vague and aloof, and their experiences remain obscure and abstract. For example, the police investigator, played by David Rommel, is listed in the program as “their son, dead at age four,” although he does nothing to indicate he is playing that role. He merely asks questions about the accident. This type of artsy-fartsy manipulation of the material quickly becomes tedious. The Cezanne Syndrome is more about the problems of play writing than about human experience. Like a musician tinkering with a new synthesizer, Canac-Marquis is preoccupied with making interesting sounds, not music.

In fairness to the playwright, however, his script might be a victim of Vicious Circle Productions, a theater group making its debut with this play. Jill Daly’s direction is stagnant and tentative, leaving the actors to flounder their way through this difficult piece. Brian Shaw seems lost as Gilbert Martineau. This role demands that he display radically different aspects of the same man. As the preaccident lover, confident that nothing bad can happen to him, he is petty, impatient, and consumed by trivial details. When “the kid,” as he and Suzanne refer to their child, walks off with the keys to one of the cars, Gilbert becomes petulant and testy. After the accident, however, this same man is shattered by the tragedy. He is dazed, meek, and self-reflective. Yet watching Shaw’s performance, one can barely tell whether a scene is taking place before or after the accident.

Paula Killen is far more animated as Suzanne, and capable of a greater range of emotion. She displays anger as well as tenderness, insight as well as the self-absorbed shortsightedness of a narcissist. But all this energy remains unfocused. For most of the play she merely stomps around in a tattered slip, talking loudly, but never creating a believable character.

Well, almost never. In one brief scene, Killen gives a performance that is so authentic and unnerving that it made me think this play might have something in it after all. The scene involves Suzanne waking in a panic from a nightmare, and then breathlessly recounting the dream, which foreshadows her own traffic accident. As Killen babbles and gropes for comfort in Shaw’s arms, the play comes to life for a moment.

Who knows? Le syndrome de Cezanne won the Quebec Theatre Critics Association prize for best new play during the 1986-87 season. The Quebec production must have had something going for it. Unless it sounds a whole lot better in French, the explanation for its success must lie in the performances. Maybe other actors, or another director, could transform Canac-Marquis’ arty script into drama. All I know is that the aloof, distracted performances in the Vicious Circle production merely highlight the tricks employed by the playwright in constructing this play, and that makes it look like an exercise in pretension.