What's a heaven for? Madame Bovary and the ache for finer things at Undermain Theatre
Updated: Mar 4, 2020
By Christopher Soden
Adaptation can be a harsh mistress, I suppose. Turning a novel into a stage piece. The task of distillation ( rather than summary ) amounts to translation. The language of prose to the language of blocking and semiotics and dialogue. Adrienne Kennedy’s take on Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is intriguing, competent theatre. If somewhat detached. The use of frames to confine and pull our focus is a noteworthy device. There’s something about a chandelier wheeled onto the stage in something like a cage, if you will. A metaphor ( I’m guessing ) for Emma Bovary’s ache for something sparkling, yet luminous. The frame used to separate Emma and her husband from the opera they’re watching. More than once, we witness these moments, when she swoons over stifled emotion.
Emma Bovary marries Dr. Charles Bovary shortly after the curtain rises, and confides she’s not in love. She thought she was, before she took the vows. She is sweet, obliging and caring towards her husband, if careless with her indiscretions. It’s made clear that Rodolphe Boulanger enjoys exploiting her vulnerability. He talks the talk, but she seems immune to reassurances. When they arrange to flee together, we know what’s coming. When the ghastly moment arrives, she’s stuck in the grotesque quandary of devastation. She can’t give in to it, or she’d risk exposure. Ironically, Charles cherishes, and never confronts her, long after her infidelities become obvious. Emma fares better in subsequent trysts. Those men are more genuine, but somehow they don’t work out. She’s never starved for love. Just a particular kind.
It’s not made clear why Madame Bovary doesn’t walk away from her marriage. Or find a way to answer her needs without insulting those devoted to her. The ambivalence that subjects her family to financial ruin, suggests she lacks any meaningful sense of self. Or perhaps she’s loathe to forfeit title and standing. Perhaps both. It's telling that Emma is surrounded by servants and friends of different classes, yet seems to be the only one unhappy with her place in society. So much of Madame Bovary considers opulence and the pleasures of leisure class recreation, rather than the need for enrichment. The numerous books Emma reads don’t seem to have much impact.
There’s nothing to imply Bovary’s limited choices as a woman force her to cruelty, but, obtuse as it is, it’s unmistakable. She conceals personal ordeals enough to be seemly, but not enough to spare others. She keeps her husband in debt, for the sake of trivial acquisition. If Madame Bovary is not Emma’s story, than whose is it? What’s the takeaway? We needn’t follow the story to its conclusion to see that despite mild affect, her values are famished. Why should we care if she suffers, when she’s more intoxicated by some notion of cosmic deprivation?
You can’t enjoy the privilege of a show at Undermain Theatre without succumbing to their meticulous, nuanced dedication to craft. The cast of Madame Bovary (Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso, Rhonda Boutté, Jim Jorgensen, Jamal Sterling, Brandon J. Murphy, Brandon Potter, Charlotte Akin, Omar Padilla, Dalota Ratliff, Amber Rossi, Benjamin Bratcher) inhabit their roles as if character was intuitive by nature. They immerse us in the narrative, never calling attention to themselves. Kennedy’s vision is unorthodox, but gets us where we need to go. Sometimes a mere gesture, or brief exchange, is used to suggest class boundaries. Curiously, for all the aristocracy and hobnobbing and amenities, none of the other characters seem pretentious. Only poor Emma, less sabotaged by passion than infatuation.
The Undermain Theatre presents Madame Bovary: playing February 12th-March 15th, 2020. 3200 Main Street, Dallas, Texas 75226. For tickets, call the box office at (214) 747-5515 or visit www.undermain.org.