The crazy lady behind the cats

Theatre in the Round pays homage to the crazies in ‘The Madwoman of Chaillot’

Sara Nicole Miller

Every city needs its own maniacal, googily eyed token crazy lady. Minneapolis has “Scary” Mari Newman, the electric haired, pierced-up artist whose house on 51st and Penn is a full-blown installation of garish folk art. Then there’s the Prom Queen of West Seventh Street in St. Paul, an elderly lass frequently spotted lollygagging up and down the street in a vintage prom dress and pageant sash.

“The Madwoman of Chaillot”

WHEN: Now through May 20
WHERE: Theatre in the Round, 245 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis
TICKETS: $20 (Students with ID receive $2 discount on Fridays and Sundays) (612) 333-3010, www.theatreintheround.org

Behind every woman of questionable mental faculties, there also comes a few absurd, worldly tales. In Theater in the Round’s production of Jean Giraudoux’s play “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” Countess Aurelia (Miriam Monasch) might be a gentlewoman of Paris, but she lives in a different world entirely. Unlike the colorful, pierced house artist or the forgotten Prom date, Countess Aurelia belongs to a larger group of cultural misfits, trapped in a bubble of Nazi-occupied France.

Act I begins romantically, as any Parisian tale should. Sultry accordion music lulls the audience onto the sleepy Rues of Paris. In the iconoclastic jungles of the Chez Francis Café terrace, three businessmen meet for Chardonnay and coarse slander. Howling and hooting about their Oriental exploits, they mock the nearby street folk, including Countess Aurelia.

A nearby prospector with an ominously carnivorous Texan accent overhears their shucking and jiving, and, with a few flips of his serpentine tongue (and a tale of petroleum in the café’s water supply), he convinces the whole table that an aqueduct of oil lies undiscovered below the earth of the café; they begin to brainstorm how to access the oil.

The vagrants and wayward street people – among them a ragpicker (Tim McGivern), a flower girl (Jessica Johnson Frohling) and a juggler (Ted Anderson) – catch wind of the crooked plot. Disheartened and fearful for the future of their communal café of cut-and-paste misfits, they call upon

the one person with unlikely moral agency: Countess Aurelia, the Madwoman of Chaillot herself.

But first, the café posse must yank the Countess out of her head stew of fantasy and myth with a compelling oratory by the ragpicker, whose vibrant, erratic caricature of a Parisian dumpster diver is by far the most fascinating of all the characters. The ragpicker throws up his hands, and by the time his discourse on their decaying society sinks to a curt, exclamatory “these days, every cabbage has its pimp!” the Countess gets the picture, however unsavory.

The group constructs a plan to lure the crooked money chasers into Countess Aurelia’s sewage dungeon and lock them within the bowels of Paris.

In the second act, back in the Countess’s cellar, she invites over three of her dearest friends (the three madwomen of Passy, St. Sulpice, and La Concorde, respectively) for tea, crumpets, and plans of vigilante justice. The scene, the most enlivening and brilliantly executed, is a Mad Hattress’s tea party turned mock trial, in which the whole community of vagrant rogues, vixens and outcasts – led by the Ragpicker and Countess Aurelia – fillet and condemn the greedy men in absentia.

“The Madwoman of Chaillot” is just the right theatrical rub of optimism in a time when big business and corrupt governments have a paw in almost every worldly affair. The huge cast (of all sensibilities, some of them amateur actors) is passionate and engaging, but the real gems of the show are the Madwomen and the Ragpicker, who carry the performance, soaring into the realm of witty, magical realism with their emblazoned monologues.

Although the play’s two acts – set in both the public café and the private cellar – become dualistic sites in which the crap hammer of capitalism and ideological snobbery are (absurdly) ridiculed, the overarching optimistic, bohemian allegory doesn’t end there. For this is not a glum lot. The actors, in paying special attention to the nuances of human interaction, illuminate the fallacies of conformity, while keeping the overall tone cheerfully absurd and ambient.

Countess Aurelia is an unlikely hero; after all, she spends her days smothering herself with fruit salts and rose water, adorned in a gaudy menagerie of bangles and floral fabrics, as she feeds giblets to stray animals.

She has a dizzying grasp on worldly logic, and her blush gobs onto her cheek like a porcelain doll’s face paint. But she – much like the fabled madwomen of our bosom cities – sullies up the world’s starchy, stagnant imagination with a little crackpot excitement and creative escapism. And nowadays, that can’t come in hearty-enough doses.