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Theater Review:

"THE VISIT" at Goodman Theatre


Like its wildcat-sorceress anti-heroine, Claire Zachanassian – who has been transformed from a carefree impassioned young woman into a mannequin with an artificial leg, hand and, perhaps, a heart – the world-premiere musical version of "The Visit" at Goodman Theatre feels coldly pieced together. Yet, regardless of moments of divinely crafted anguish and redemption, this over- ambitious reimagining of Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt’s 1956 macabre morality play fails to fully engage.

Part of the problem can be traced directly to the source – one of the darkest dramas of all time in which revenge and personal responsibility are explored within the framework of grotesque metaphor. No jaunty boy-gets-girl plot here. Rather the girl really gets the boy -- and ships his body off to be entombed in her villa in Capri. But bleak subject matter does not necessarily make for bad musical theater. "Cabaret" and "Les Miserables" come to mind.

"The Visit," however, is such a morally eviscerating play in its original form that the music-theater structure undercuts the genuine horror of its premise.

One of the most reviled and tantalizing figures in 20th century drama, Claire Zachanassian is the wealthiest woman in the world. She decides to pay a visit to the small-minded town that, several decades ago, drove her away in disgrace, to make the entire community pay for its intolerance. Claire’s lover, Anton Schell, had devised a devastating scheme to disgrace her after learning he was the father of her unborn child. The musical suggests that this may have been Anton’s way of forcing Claire to escape to a better life. Yet his actions are still troubling.

So Claire, upon her grisly return, offers the depressed town (which she secretly owns and caused to become bankrupt) a deal: economic redemption in exchange for the life of Anton Schell. Slowly, the locals shed their high-minded morality and begin to buy on credit. They get a taste of prosperity and are willing to commit ritualized murder to satisfy their material needs.

The complexities of this story are dizzying and almost incomprehensible – bringing up issues and ethics awkwardly addressed in its musical reinterpretation. The musical version stresses Anton’s ceaseless love for Claire – and includes a stirring duet for them moments before Anton walks to his death. That’s quite a stretch – even if Anton is doing the noble thing and accepting responsibility for his foolish actions. Furthermore, does Claire’s monstrous scheme of spending eternity with him make her redeemable?

And, most disturbing, how can one fully accuse the town of having blood on its hands when Claire set the economic tailspin into motion? Both timely and ill-timed, the Goodman’s "Visit" also raises frightening questions of evil infiltrating a society and taking out revenge on that entire society for the foibles of a few – issues our nation is devastatingly enmeshed in right now.

But from a purely artistic standpoint, even the extraordinary creative team assembled for this project struggles to add any startling new dimensions to Durrenmatt’s bold and controversial work of dramatic literature. John Kander’s and Fred Ebb’s score – which melds tango, ragtime, hymns, ballads and beer-hall tunes – never finds a compellingly melodic through-line. It crosses tinges of Kurt Weill with vague oom-pah-pah strains, making the music both jarringly progressive and self-consciously folksy.

These dichotomies send viewers into two separate dramatic universes – also reflected in director Frank Galati’s decision to make the setting so specifically Swiss, including an Alpine and heavily forested landscape. Durrenmatt may have been inspired by an actual Swiss town (and the work is set in Brachen), but "The Visit" – like "Our Town" – exists on an abstracted, nondescript plane. It takes place on a certain moral terrain of the heart and mind – in the galaxy of human nature.

The production, therefore, vacillates between the land of lederhosen and an absurdist existentialist wasteland – with Claire and her demonically cartoonish entourage representing otherworldly, even hellish, forces. One of the most chillingly effective scenes is Claire rising from underground dressed in a stylish white suit and sitting atop black-and-silver trunks, including a coffin. Claire is the demonic metaphor crashing into the town’s picture-perfect realism.

While these are effective contrasts, I would have liked to have experienced a more daringly experimental staging – an icily sparse stage could have spoken volumes over Derek McLane’s literal sepia-toned European village set. Brian MacDevitt’s chiaroscuro lighting more poignantly suggests an alternative universe; and Susan Hilferty’s glamorous costumes for Claire take us strikingly through the motivational progressions of the character.

Terrence McNally’s book, while stinging and crisp, includes a few self-serving digs and anachronisms – particularly Claire’s quip about how Bach is always appropriate music to play, "unlike Wagner." The line was inappropriate and set an oddly flippant and acerbic tone.

Ann Reinking’s choreography carries the work’s ominous, off-kilter sentiments full circle, exemplified in the disturbing virtuoso one-legged tango for Claire, her eunuchs, thuggish servants and cadaverous butler. But it’s also something of a disappointing paradox to make Chita Rivera as Claire suppress her fiery dancing talents. This enduring Broadway star has to hobble around – albeit with the utmost elegance and style – on a cane and make us forever conscious of her character’s artificial leg.

On the flip side, Reinking resorts to "Carousel"-like cliches in the totally unoriginal dance sequences for the young Claire and young Anton set to probably the most simplistic song ever written for musical theater, "You, You, You."

The cast, however, is flawless and electrifying. Rivera kinetically embodies Claire’s passion, crushed hopes and vampire-like callousness; while John McMartin’s Anton captures the soulful regret of an old man who refused to follow his heart and exchanged a smug emptiness for genuine happiness.

Steven Sutcliffe turns in an arrestingly honest performance as the tormented Schoolmaster (especially strong in his solo, "The Only One"); and Ami Silvestre unveils the warring emotions within Anton’s resentful wife Matilda.

Other outstanding performances include Mark Jacoby as the groveling Mayor; McKinley Carter as his persnickety wife; James Harms as Claire’s morbid butler; Guy Adkins as Anton’s rebellious but conscience-stricken young son; and grotesquely beguiling countertenors Mark Crayton and Raymond Zrinsky as Claire’s loyal eunuchs.•

"The Visit" runs through November 3 at the Albert Ivar Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets: $40-$55. Call 312-443-3800.
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