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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Awakening
Savage Umbrella
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of The Red Shoes and Kit's review of The King and I


Alexis Clarksean and Emily Dussault
Photo by Dan Norman
Students and readers of feminist literature will surely be familiar with Kate Chopin's novel "The Awakening," which has been adapted for the stage by Savage Umbrella. Savage Umbrella mounts original works through group process, including its company and performance ensemble members, under the leadership of Artistic Director Laura Leffler-McCabe. While their use of aspects of physical theater creates an elemental and visceral feel, they maintain a strong connection to text, and their Awakening closely adheres to the novel. Leffler-McCabe directs the current production of the play, which was first mounted in 2010, bringing its strong storytelling and visual poetry back to the stage.

Chopin's novel was published in 1899 to mixed reactions, condemned by many critics for having as its central character a woman who is unable to find satisfaction in the traditional roles of wife, mother, and member of polite society. Though not the first writer to broach these issues—Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, for one, appeared in 1879—such notions were still well outside mainstream thought. Today, The Awakening is one of the pillars of any study of feminism or feminist literature, and if what was shocking in 1899 seems standard fare today, it can provide a measure of progress that has been made, while revealing some of the work that remains to be done.

As The Awakening opens, Edna Pontellier already knows that the life she leads is all wrong for her. We don't see the stages of her losing faith in the traditional roles, or know if she ever had faith in them. She is, from our first acquaintance, aloof to her hard-working husband Leonce, disinterested in their two sons, bored with domesticity, and scornful of social niceties. She and her family are summering on Grand Isle, outside New Orleans, with Leonce making frequent trips back to the city to conduct business. All that interests Edna is soaking in the ocean (she does not know how to swim; perhaps that element of risk enhances her pleasure) and the company of handsome Robert Lebrun, son of the seaside resort's hospitable proprietress.

The "awakening" that Edna undergoes in the course of the play is vividly shown through an encounter with art. Mademoiselle Reisz, another guest on Grand Isle, has a cold, judgmental demeanor that is melted away by the heat of her soulful musicianship. The music sends a visible shiver through Edna's being, and moves her to seek out the artist within herself. She takes up painting, but painting is not her only means of expression. She realizes that her entire life is hers to create, and she begins to make bold choices. It is this empowerment to which she "awakens."

Summer ends and the family returns to New Orleans while Robert seeks opportunity in Mexico. Edna is now even less a wife to Leonce, mother to her sons, or respectable to their social circle. She languishes over Robert's absence, falls into an affair with a man she does not love, and decides to move out of their gracious home into a four-room cottage all her own. Leonce struggles to tolerate his wife's revolt and to maintain appearances of propriety. He even seeks advice from a doctor, suspecting that Edna's mental state is in peril. Edna pushes as far as she can to achieve a life that is truly her own, until she reaches the very edge of possibility.

Emily Dussault etches a complex portrait as Edna, as we see her struggle with the joy and pain of free will. By turns she shows delight in the pleasures life offers, scorn for convention, flights of poetry in thrall of the sea, and despair as she fears that she has made choices that have been hers to make. As Robert, Nick Wolf conveys boyish charm and seductive playfulness before becoming frightened of his feelings and, finally, disillusioned by life. Seth K. Hale plays Leonce with just enough goodness to keep from disliking him and just enough priggishness to keep from embracing him. Alexis Clarksean makes a striking Mademoiselle Reisz, statuesque and haughty, while revealing her inner passion and a trace of vulnerability. As Adele, Edna's one friend to whom she speaks honestly, Amber Davis gives a strong performance of a woman who is no fool, but who finds her happiness through the conventional paths. She understands the choices Edna is making, but fears for the heavy price her friend will pay in the end.

Laura Leffler-McCabe's direction moves the play seamlessly through its two acts, making shifts in locale and time clear without having to declare them, and maintaining a growing tension in between the exhilaration Edna feels in her "awakening" and a growing sense of dread that it can only lead to an unhappy end. The ensemble provides visual imagery through physical theater, such as moving in unison to become ocean waves; falling asleep, one upon the other, leaving only Edna awake. This adds both depth and beauty to the storytelling on stage.

The play is accompanied by Candace Emberley's original music performed on piano, violin and clarinet that creates a soundscape of 1890s society. The setting is extremely simple, using just a few movable pedestals and boards, along with Adam Raine's lighting design, to establish the various locations, as well as shifts in the emotional tone of each scene. The costumes, Sarah French's original designs from the 2010 production, do an excellent job of displaying fashions of the period, as well as distinguishing between social classes.

Edna makes for a challenging heroine, for it is hard to like her. True, she draws on our sympathy as a woman of her times, shackled by the limits placed on her and scorned by a society that allows no breach of wifely duties. But she is needlessly sharp and cold toward Leonce, who though overbearing and dismissive at times, is never unkind. He is the epitome of a "good" man for his time—conventional, hard-working, and faithful—and he reaches out to Edna with tenderness. Her kindest words for him are, after he declares his loving devotion to her, "I believe there is a sympathy of taste and thought between us," spoken with not a note of love or affection.

Further, she pursues Robert, a young man with nothing but free time to devote to her, while her husband works to support her lifestyle. How could she have this summer idyll with Robert if there had been no Leonce? This, she shrugs off. She is enlightened to possibilities for her life, but continues to count upon her husband's material support, knowing he will never question his role. In contrast, the musician Mademoiselle Reisz makes her own way in the world. She disdains society and accepts being talked about for her eccentricities and solitude—but she does so at no one's expense.

Edna has awakened to the pursuit her own happiness, but has not the grit nor the means to do so independently. It is hard to respect this woman. Even so, Savage Umbrella's lovely and stirring rendition of The Awakening is worth seeing both for its artistry and for what this story from 1899 still has to say to us in 2017.

The Awakening, presented by Savage Umbrella, continues through March 18, 2017 as part of the Art Share series at Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $20.00 in advance, $24.00 at the door, $12.00 students with ID, free for Art Share members. For tickets and information on Art Share go to southerntheater.org. For information on Savage Umbrella go to savageumbrella.org.

Adapted from Kate Chopin's novel by Laura Leffler-McCabe, created with Savage Umbrella and the ensemble; Director: Laura Leffler-McCabe; Composer: Candace Emberley; Music Director: Nic Delcambre; Set Design: Meagan Kedrowski; Original Costume Design: Sarah French; Costume Assistant: Alexandra Gould; Light Design: Adam Rainer; Stage Manager: Hannah K. Holman.

Cast: Nayely Becerra (Mariequita/Miss Mayblunt), Alexis Clarksean (Mademoiselle Reisz), Amber Davis (Adele Ratignolle), Lauren Diesch (Chloe/Miss Merriman), Russ Dugger (Alphonse Ratignolle), Emily Dussault (Edna Pontellier), Thomas Ferguson * (Ari Ratignolle), Nathan Gebhard (Victor Lebrun), Seth K. Hale (Leonce Pontellier), Aaron Henry (Dauphnis/Dr. Mandelet/Gouvernail), Rachel Kuhnle (Nina), Eric Marinus (Mr. Merriman/Beaudelet/Colonel Cartwright), Tinne Rosenmeier (Madame Lebrun/Mrs. Highcamp), Daniel Rovinsky * (Ari Ratignolle), Mike Swan (Alcee Arobin), Nick Wolf (Robert Lebrun). * Alternate performances


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