Review: She Visits

by Lynn on November 27, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Five Points Theatre, Barrie, Ont. until Nov. 26, 2021. (It was a very short run).

Written and performed by Maja Ardal

Inspired by “Der Besuch Der Alten Dame” by Friedrich Dűrrenmatt

Directed by Jeff Braunstein

Songs composed by Maja Ardal

Original music and song design by Matt Dawson

Set designer, Diane Frederick

Maja Ardal’s adaptation of Friedrich Dűrrenmatt’s masterpiece (Der Besuch Der Alten Dame)—“The Visit of the Old Lady”—is as relevant now as it was when he wrote it in 1956.

The Story. Claire Onassiopolus is fabulously wealthy. After 45 years Claire is returning home to Gardenia, her impoverished small town with a plan. Alfred Gill, one of the town’s most beloved citizens, is chosen to greet Claire and use his charm on her to see if she can help financially as much as possible. Claire and Alfred had a ‘history’ when they were teenagers so Alfred seems the smartest choice to ‘sweet-talk’ Claire. Various people remember her sense of justice, humanity etc. They soon find out about her keen sense of justice.

After Claire is settled in the town’s hotel, with her entourage of two beefy body-guards, two blind eunuch servants, her pet panther and a coffin, and the leaders of the town wine and dine her, Claire tells the folks what she will do for them. She will give the town $80 million and $20 million do be divided evenly among the townsfolk. On one condition, that they kill Alfred Gill. Pandemonium ensues. Disgust from the town’s folk that she should suggest such a despicable thing. Claire explains.

When she was 15-years-old Claire became pregnant by Alfred. He denied it. There was a bastardy case. Two teens were bribed by Alfred to say they slept with Claire. The result is that Claire was run out of town. She became a prostitute and rich, old Onassiopolus was one of her clients and he married her. When he died Claire inherited his wealth and then she plotted to get her revenge on the townsfolk of Gardenia and Alfred in particular. The people refuse her offer. Claire says she can wait. It’s one of the great lines of dramatic literature and how the town’s folk then react is one of the great character developments in a play.

The Production. Maja Ardal has done a masterful job of adapting  Der Besuch Der Alten Dame—“The Visit of the Old Lady” and is presenting this as a one-person show. She has cut some characters but retained many that nicely tell the story. In the original play the town was called “Gűllen,” the translation from the German is “liquid manure.” I’ve also seen it translated as “horseshit.” So for Ardal to call the town “Gardenia” is inspired irony. Love that.

Ardal is inhabiting the body of a man when she is performing this. She wears a blond-grey wig that is close to the head with the hair held back in a ponytail. Each character she plays is distinct and with his/her own idiosyncrasies.  Alfred Gill is a confident man, a bit full of his own self-importance, and perhaps a bit shy around Claire when he finally meets her after all those years. As Claire, Ardal gives her an imperious air. Claire’s fake right hand is held stiff, and occasionally has to be re-adjusted. She also has a fake leg that requires her burly body-guards to adjust that too. Claire is refined, coy, patient and deadly. She knows what she wants and how to get it. The mayor is an arrogant, bombastic man who keeps patting his corpulence, perhaps to suggest that his girth represents success and wealth. The two blind eunuchs talk in a high voice with a dead stare and an eerie smile that’s frozen. Each representation is clear, precise and detailed.

The production is directed by Jeff Braunstein and it’s wonderful. There are so many small but resounding details that illuminate this dark story. When the town’s people are told they would need some kind of apparatus to calculate how much each person would get if they actually did what Claire wanted, Ardal rattled what looked like a box of Tic-tac and all we heard was the box of mints crash like a quickly manipulated abacus. Ardal played a trumpet in one moment, an accordion in another to juxtapose moments of levity with those of the horror.

Braunstein uses the space very well and it all seems natural. Diane Frederick has designed a dramatic set in which the floor is painted with a spiral formation that looks like a raging swirl of activity. Various props are efficiently placed either on stands or pedestals.  

The moments alone between Gill and Claire are quite touching. She has waited for him to regard her as a person, and while he does not apologize or even seem to have remorse, he does confess to her that he chose security when he was younger and married another young woman of the town. And he might even have feelings for her, aside from the fact that she is rich. Ardal has kept that complexity of the story while presenting it as simply as possible.

Ardal has also composed several songs that are effective and bracing. One song about money is particularly pointed.

Comment. I love “The Visit of the Old Lady” or as it’s known more commonly, “The Visit,” because of what it says about greed, envy, revenge disappointment and love. And make no mistake, it’s a love-story. In She Visits Ardal illuminates that Claire loves Alfred and has for all those years, and has found a dark way of getting and keeping him for herself. I look at how the original play was written after WWII to reflect how decent people turned in their neighbours for money. In today’s world, so full of anger, racism, division, lack of patience and compassion, She Visits still has power and relevance, alas.

This is a terrific adaptation and production. Maja Ardal has hopes that the play will travel. I hope this works out. I’d see it again.

Talk is Free Theatre presents:

Runs until the evening of Nov. 26, 2021.

Running time: 1 hour, 7 minutes.

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