THE NEW YORK TIMES
By BEN BRANTLEY APRIL 8, 1996
Out of the mouths of babes come bombs in the implosive world of Roger Vitrac's "Victor, or Children Take Over." This seldom-seen 1928 French comedy, which has been given a smashing (in every sense of the word) revival by the Arden Party troupe, turns a 9-year-old's birthday celebration into a riot of destruction in which that cute childish knack for speaking the unspoken has fatal consequences. You may have been taken to hell by kiddie parties yourself. But yours probably didn't end with a major body count.
Too real for the surrealists and too surreal for the realists, Vitrac had the misfortune to fall between intellectual stools during his lifetime. But this giddy, nasty little play (first directed by Antonin Artaud) now seems astonishingly prescient, anticipating the socially fracturing styles of Ionesco, Bunuel and Albee. Victor" is pretty literal-minded by absurdist standards, but it also has an angry energy that is made for the theater. And Karin Coonrod's intelligent, visually compelling staging taps into what adults find both frightening and exhilarating in children: a pure streak of anarchy that grown-ups spend most of their lives trying to repress. For Vitrac, Baudelaire's artistic dictum about shocking the bourgeois obviously begins at home.
"Victor" is set in the expensively appointed house of Charles and Emilie Paumelle (T. Ryder Smith and Jan Leslie Harding), a sea-foam green rectangle of chairs and sofas arranged with anal-retentive precision, while other items of furniture float ominously overhead. It is a world, in a set by Sarah Edkins, that exudes sickly stylishness, made to be dismantled. The architect of this process is the title character (the adult actor Steven Rattazzi), a boy consumed by mortal thoughts on his birthday. Though given to terrorizing the family maid (Mary Christopher) and breaking antique vases, Victor is more advanced nihilist than basic brat. "There are no more children," he announces early on.
Despite such observations (not to mention Victor's penchant for erupting into worldly Dadaist rants), he and his playmate, Esther (the excellent Paula Cole, an adult who does childhood without the syrup), undermine social lies in ways familiar to any parent of precocious children.
Victor knows just what questions to ask to send Esther's unhinged father, Antoine (Patrick Morris), right over the edge. And when he and Esther perform a little play, based on a conversation the girl overheard between her mother (Gretchen Krich) and Charles, it unmasks a secret sexual relationship, conducted with some of the strangest pillow talk in erotic history.
Also on hand are a doting family friend (Randolph Curtis Rand), and the enigmatic Ida Mortemart (Linda Donald), a lockjawed lady in an evening gown given to volcanic fits of flatulence. Ida, of course, is the spirit of the play incarnate. Ms. Coonrod, who will be directing the "Henry VI" plays for the New York Shakesepeare Festival, uses devices favored by deconstructionists like Anne Bogart and JoAnne Akalaitis -- ritualistic gestures, slow motion, time-splintering blackouts. But they always serve the play's rhythmic counterpoint of what one character describes as "secrecy and lunacy." And, for once, they do not turn the actors into automatons.
Watch how Ms. Coonrod lets Mr. Smith and Ms. Harding rip fiercely into the juicy sexual confrontation of the play's final act. Ms. Harding, one of the great assets of New York experimental theater, is marvelous, as her character struggles vainly to turn disaster into cocktail-party chatter. (Just listen to the molasses-voiced variations she rings on the phrase "I'm controlling myself.")
Though Mr. Rattazzi is better at evoking the man within than the child without, all the actors find the pulse beneath their character's grotesque postures. And everything seems tonally of a piece here: from the overripe, banality-warping language (the new translation is by Aaron Etra, Ms. Coonrod, Esther Sobin and Frederic Maurin) to Sonia Simon's subversive take on haute bourgeois chic, with costumes that seem to work in references to every "ism" of early-20th-century art.
Ms. Coonrod doesn't always obscure the play's more blatant manifesto elements, and one could do without such touches as pronouncing "terrible" in the French manner (presumably to underscore associations with Cocteau). But for a stylized director, working with an inordinately stylized piece, she is admirable for refusing to coast on the play's surface. As a consequence, what could have been just a period curiosity takes on the recalictrant, prickly life of its underage hero.
VICTOR Or Children Take Over By Roger Vitrac; directed by Karin Coonrod; sets by Sarah Edkins; lighting by Ken Moreland; costumes by Sonia Simon; music and sound by Tony Geballe; dramaturgy by Frederic Maurin; translated by Aaron Etra, Ms. Coonrod, Esther Sobin and Mr. Maurin. Presented by Arden Party, Jan E. Murphy Managing Director and Mr. Etra, producer. At the Ohio Theater, 66 Wooster Street, SoHo.
WITH: Steven Rattazzi (Victor), T. Ryder Smith (Charles Paumelle), Jan Leslie Harding (Emilie Paumelle), Mary Christopher (Lili), Paula Cole (Esther), Patrick Morris (Antoine Magneau), Gretchen Krich (Therese Magneau), Randolph Curtis Rand (General Etienne Lonsegur/Doctor) and Linda Donald (Mme. Ida Mortemart/Mysterious Visitor).
Steven Ratazzi, Gretcen Kritch and T. Ryder Smith at the Ohio Theatre.
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