If in pursuit of French humor, dramatic performance and eccentric, controversial narrative, one need look no further than Masque and Gown's production of Orphée hitting Pickard Theater this weekend.
Orphée is the product of director Bryant Johnson '11, who submitted the proposal for the production after having prepared a scene from Jean Cocteau's work for his directing course. The plot is driven by the actions of a man who is estranged from his demon-worshipping wife and follows his actions as he and his wife emerge cursed from the underworld.
"I don't try to direct a realistic play," said Johnson. "I exploit the genre for what I see it being good for. My goal directing this play was to take a very problematic script and produce it well."
Indeed, the plot of Orphée is so eccentric that it necessitates an astounding set design and high-energy acting.
"If you thought Fantasia was trippy, wait 'til you see us," said Ricardo Zarate '13, who plays what he called a "flamboyant, megalomaniac" commissioner of police.
"It's really a brilliant piece of surreal French humor," said Zarate of the production.
The play is a hyperbole of sorts, with an eye-popping cartoon-strip set design that Johnson said was "taken after Jean Luc Godard's 'Made in USA.'"
Johnson added that "all the set design and costumes...have very violent color values. I've tried to incorporate that emotional violence into every aspect of the show."
Bright, violent, and controversial, Orphée invites the audience into an alternate reality that Jason LeSaldo '13 said, "changes the way you look at ordinary things—that was part of Cocteau's mission. Death is written as a beautiful woman—[the play] changes some archetypal images...and conventions of classical theater." Jason LeSaldo plays Orphée's guardian angel.
According to Johnson, his production of Orphée "sticks to the script with a greater transparency than Cocteau intended," and because of this, it "by necessity has to sort of simplify and grossly exaggerate human emotions."
In relation to previous Masque and Gown productions, Zarate called it an "anomaly": Orphée was put together in a short, four-week period following Winter Break. During this time, Johnson set to work figuring out how to apply Jean Cocteau's work to an American context.
"I was interested in translating French eccentricity into American eccentricity...to exploit the difference between them," Johnson said.
Putting such a daunting, eccentric show together was no easy task considering the short production time, but Khalil LeSaldo '11, who plays Orphée, said, "Bryant's clear vision cut a lot of time out."
"I think when we all first read the show, we immediately came to the consensus that to make such a crazy script work it had to be crazy," Khalil LeSaldo said. The small cast of 11 was able to withstand the grueling audition process and come together as an ensemble. "Each one of them flourished in his or her role, which was especially difficult because the characters in this play air on the side of stylistic extremes or inconsistency," said Johnson.
"We're not really holding anything back," said Zarate. "We just want to shock."
For starring actor Khalil LeSaldo, the play has markedly developed his acting abilities. "It's been an opportunity to stretch myself...it's a frontier that I haven't been to yet," he said.
Johnson emphasized the fact that the production will push the audience in exciting and provocative ways. The audience will also be stretched in its willingness to explore a surrealist world— "they'll come away with...an alternate perception of reality...nothing is really as it seems," said Jason LeSaldo.
Johnson said, "I don't know what entertains people or why I'm so concerned with entertaining people. If I'm an entertainer, the kittens online would put me out of business. What actors can do that kittens can't is lie about or conceal or misrepresent genuine emotional response."
"We're a species that can tell falsehoods about our own condition, and I thought theater the perfect medium to exploit this phenomenon. I wanted to tell the truth about lies by insulting intelligence, dignity and taste with a play that didn't ring true. This play is me not defending what Cocteau has done while simultaneously following him to the bitter end. Enjoy the show!"
Orphée will delight the senses, leading the audience on a comedic adventure into the world of Jean Cocteau.
Masque and Gown's production of Jean Cocteau's Orphée is playing at Pickard Theater on Thursday, February 25 through Saturday, February 27 at 8 p.m.
Admission is $1 for Bowdoin students and friends, and $3 for the general public. Masque and Gown will also be matching each dollar that is donated to Haiti relief efforts during the event.