Dallas — Madame Bovary is alive and pulsing with adulterous desire, embodied by scintillating Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso, in Adrienne Kennedy’s potent 90-minute adaptation of Gustav Flaubert’s landmark 1857 realistic novel titled after his passionate heroine.
The steam reaches ground level from the basement playing space of Undermain Theatre, where
Artistic Director Bruce DuBose directs a 12-member cast in the richly detailed story of a country doctor’s wife — convent-educated, hyper-imaginative Emma Bovary — who, bored mindless with her dull husband and needy little girl, commits adultery with a sophisticated local landowner who dumps her, runs up enormous debt trying desperately to appear aristocratic, and finally kills herself by swallowing arsenic.
We know Emma’s fate, if not from Flaubert, then from hundreds of books, movies and TV soaps. That yearning for explosive, glamourous sexual fulfilment, pumped to pounding resonance in poems of Byron, Shelley and Goethe, is a driving force we recognize as somehow universal. But is it? Flaubert simultaneously condemns as false the enticing Romantic vision of love blossoming in an atmosphere of perfumed beard pomades and buoyant dancing dresses, and yet memorializes that rich, fulsome desire by creating a woman we cannot resist.
In her adaptation of Madame Bovary, Kennedy takes on the question, and Undermain rolls it out in sumptuous style in this regional premiere. What better place to examine a staid marriage and a restless bride than Undermain’s historic basement space girded with thick concrete columns and a polished floor, here painted with twining flowers and vines, redolent of a garden or vineyard.
Kennedy, the seminal 85-year-old American avant-garde playwright, knows a thing or two about restless desire and the urge to be what you are not. In her 1984 award-winning play, Funnyhouse of a Negro, Negro-Sarah, a striving light-skinned artist drawn to European and English culture, imagines Queen Victoria and a grand duchess as her forebears, and yet when she calls on them, her black blood shuts the door, driving her to isolation and violence against her black lover. Many of her other 20-odd plays — which are sadly not produced as much as they are studied — posit a heroine, sometimes as a child, swirling in a racial and cultural battle where economic status and skin color divide families and the children engendered across those divides.
Here, Kennedy clearly understands the growing restlessness we see in Emma, the daughter of a tradesman traded in marriage to a country doctor, Charles Bovary (attentive, plainspoken Jim Jorgensen) but still craving the thrills she’s read about in the racy novels of love affairs among the rich nobility, all beyond her reach. We see her mother’s life played out through Emma’s only child, Berthe (Dakota Ratliff), a neglected child and a sad-eyed narrator. Ratliff’s waif-like Berthe looks on helplessly as her kind, hapless father discovers his dead wife’s old love letters to Rodolphe and Leon in her fancy desk, at the very outset of the play, just as we see the living Emma setting up her first household.
DuBose pulls us into Emma’s life swiftly, with short scenes from the early years of her marriage, when Emma attempts to find a life in a backwater town with a hard-working doctor who makes calls from daylight to dusk, and only gives his bride an occasional pat on the head before snoring off to sleep. The actors move with the plot, from one scene to the next, playing out their lives in Amanda Capshaw’s textured, neutral-colored costumes, as if in a black-and-white film. Only Emma is the bright spot of color in these cold scenes, whether wearing a lilac day dress or a shining blue gown when she at last goes to a ball.
Scenic designer Russell Parkman opens the playing space to the max, where a grand ball at a neighboring estate takes place. The stage fills with dancers in gorgeous gowns circling a bright chandelier wheeled in to center stage, moving joyfully to the music. Kudos to choreographer Danielle Georgiou and sound designer Justin Locklear. Jasso’s triumphant Emma steps gracefully into the scene through one of several large suspended frames, as she sees herself living, at last, a moment she has always imagined.
Jasso’s Emma has an air of expectancy about her from the outset, smiling hopefully to the flouncy middle-class neighbors in her new life. She’s kind to the course, pretentious pharmacist (Jamal Sterling, in puffed up, loud-mouth mode) and his nosey wife (kind, mousey Charlotte Akin), and she invites the bourgeoisie to her home, where she and her pert maid Felicity (Amber Rossi) offer fancy tea service.
At the ball, Jasso’s Emma is ebullient and sparkling. Her white arms circling the shoulder of the bachelor estate owner, a strong dancer with a cynic’s eye for easy pickings like pretty, bored Emma. Rodolph (calculating, confident Brandon J. Murphy) is all press and murmurs, and she manages a proper resistance, initially, as they stroll through a delightfully staged county fair.
When Emma and Charles attend the opera to see Lucia di Lammermoor, Jasso’s Emma leans into the tragic voice of Lucia, sung convincingly by Rossi, and swells with the same desire. Her passion enforced by the romantic tale, Emma soon succumbs to her lover’s advances.
Emma’s emotional instability and social ambition are not overlooked by the local money lender and merchant Monsieur L’Heureux (sly, increasingly aggressive Brandon Whitlock). He gladly extends credit for rich fabrics and silver tea services to the eager, restless housewife, an iconic figure familiar to high-end retailers everywhere.
From the ecstatic high point of Emma’s joy in her lover, the powerful reality of the real-world crushes in on her illicit romantic fantasy, and it all comes crumbling down. Scenes move swiftly, as we see Emma collapse in a fever, discarded by her lover, then taking on a second that moves quickly from a canoe ride to sordid hotel meetings with Leon (empathetic, eager Omar Padilla).
Jasso’s Emma breathes faster and her face flushes with heat as she rushes about the shops and her house as if trapped, as mounting debt and rejection drive her to desperation and suicide.
Young Berthe, affected most profoundly by her mother’s heedless pursuit of a romantic fantasy, describes the loving care given to Emma’s caskets and funeral by her stunned, sad father. She tells of her own orphaned state, working in cotton mill. What a wreck Emma has made of her life.
Kennedy’s take on Flaubert’s expose of Romanticism does make us see the suffering that Emma has generated, and yet when the novel and the play is done, it is Emma’s fantasy that we remember.
Reflecting on his novel, Flaubert famously admitted that “Madame Bovary c’est moi.” Kennedy, one feels after the lights go down, might well agree. Yet the novelist and playwright, creators of the story, live on to tell the tale when the last character has left the stage.
Once more, DuBose and Undermain’s cast and crew have opened another world beneath street level and invited us to be part of a timeless story.