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by Adrienne Kennedy
Adapted from the novel by Gustave Flaubert

Undermain Theatre

Directed by Bruce DuBose
Costume Design – Amanda Capshaw
Choreographer – Danielle Georgiou
Sound Design – Justin Locklear
Stage Management – Marlo Mysliwiec
Scenic Design – Russell Parkman
Properties Design – Amy Poe
Lighting Design – Steve Woods

Emma Bovary – Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso
Madame Lefrancois – Rhonda Boutté
Charles Bovary – Jim Jorgensen
Monsieur Homais – Jamal Sterling
Rodolphe – Brandon J. Murphy
Monsieur L’Heureux – Brandon Whitlock
Madame Homais – Charlotte Akin
Léon – Omar Padilla
Berthe Bovary – Dakota Ratliff
Felicité/Lady Lucia – Amber Rossi
Priest/Curé – Benjamin Bratcher
Servant/Justin – Danny Lovelle

Reviewed Performance: 2/16/2020

Reviewed by Carol St George, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

When Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 debut novel Madame Bovary was unleashed on the French public (in pieces, serialized in the Paris Review), it received a hostile welcome. The French government attacked it as obscene and prosecuted Flaubert and his publisher for offending public morals. Demonstrating that all publicity is good publicity, the novel became a bestseller. Today it’s considered Flaubert’s masterpiece and the work that birthed modern literary realism.

All the more reason for the au courant Undermain Theatre to stage a new adaptation of the novel by no less than Adrienne Kennedy, whose avant-garde body of work has shaped modern theater for more than half a century.

“Madame Bovary is the tragic yet scintillating story of a woman who longed for a life she could never fully achieve,” according to the Signature Theatre in New York, for whom Kennedy was a playwright-in-residence 1995-96. “Emma Bovary is a woman who desires the illustrious and romantic world she has only read about in books or observed from afar. As this desire grows, Emma must seek to fulfill it, whatever the cost, in an ultimate quest to become the Madame Bovary of her wildest and most passionate dreams.”

The twist that animates Kennedy’s adaptation is the telling of the story through the eyes of Emma’s daughter Berthe, whose (sometimes literal) window on the drama becomes our perspective. Emma is unhappy with her lot, living a provincial existence in a provincial town. Married to an unremarkable, homespun doctor, and mother to a child who’s more a disruption of her fantasies than a fulfillment of any maternal dreams. She seeks the thrill of affairs and the instant gratification of unbridled material consumption.

Emma is only too familiar, representing the dark side of modern society, at least in the west, where lust for a grander lifestyle is often the only object of our passion, and there is no satisfaction, no greener grass, to be found.

This is Kennedy’s compelling attraction to the story. It’s our story, too. “I often felt caring for a baby all day and being a young housewife a tremendous letdown. Was this where my life had been leading? I seemed drab to myself … I first found comfort in my state of mind from reading Madame Bovary.” – Adrienne Kennedy, People Who Led to My Plays. Understandably, she was equally drawn to Anna Karenina.

Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso plays Emma Bovary with restrained angst. Her ennui is palpable. Even her flights of passion ascend with clipped wings. We observe her from a safe distance, neither moved to sympathetic tears nor sharp criticism, perhaps because we’re meant to see her through the filter of Berthe’s vision. For her part, Dakota Ratliff’s Berthe is magnetic. She’s cloaked in neutrality yet seething with an intensity that belies her dispassionate narration. Ratliff deftly juggles Berthe’s mix of worldly wisdom and youthful innocence, and the effect commands us to pay attention.

Jim Jorgensen is an empathetic Charles Bovary, rock solid as the stoic, neglected husband. Jamal Sterling is confident and authoritative as the successful Monsieur Homais. Brandon J. Murphy strikes an imposing figure as the lecherous Rodolphe. Brandon Whitlock plays the manipulative Monsieur L’Heureux with a wry smile behind which lurks his well-concealed naked greed. Rhonda Boutté is the consummate world-weary landlady Madame Lefrancois. And Omar Padilla delivers a concurrently naïve and pretentious Léon.

Director Bruce DuBose has assembled a talented and committed cast and has artfully arranged their interactions to approach the craft of a BBC drama, replete with ballroom dancing (smoothly choreographed by Danielle Georgiou) and an excerpt from Donizetti’s opera Lucia Di Lammermoor. Amanda Capshaw’s period costumes and Russell Parkman’s sparse but pointed scenic design meld to present a fresh take on a classic literary staple.

With this production, Undermain Theatre is sure to draw fans of both Flaubert and Kennedy, making it worthwhile to open a window and look inside.

Madame Bovary
Undermain Theatre
Runs through March 15, 2020
Tickets: 214.747.5515