New Review: The Satin Slipper or the Worst Is Not the Surest

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For Back Stage.

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Here’s the review:

Unedited, Paul Claudel’s epic tale of religiosity and romance runs between seven and 12 hours. Counterintuitive as it may seem, director Peter Dobbins might have done himself and his ensemble of more than a dozen actors a favor by not cutting the work down to a maddeningly hard-to-follow three hours. What if he’d staged it in full, made it a theatrical cause cél√®bre, tested the audience’s endurance?

For one thing, it might have honored Claudel’s dramatic vision more assertively, not to mention comprehensively. For another, all the elements are in place for such a scheme. Co-produced by Dobbins’ Storm Theatre and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, the build-out of the performance space at the Church of Notre Dame is divinely malleable: a long platform cleaving the space, moveable flats at one end. Here, Claudel’s spectral, lyrical, ethereal drama unfolds across Europe, the Americas, the Atlantic Ocean, the Moon, and beyond. Interwoven tales of sin and redemption exemplify Claudel’s devotion to Catholicism. Through them, we gain insight into his stature as a French literary master.

Dobbins’ version of the play, which telescopes it to a mere 30 scenes and three hours, maintains at its narrative core Do√±a Prouheze (Meredith Napolitano) and Don Rodrigo (Harlan Work), attractive mortals locked in an ill-fated love during the Spanish golden age. They are also elaborate metaphors for Claudel, whose image-laden dialogue often explores the tensions, the dynamic, between the physical and spiritual worlds. The play’s pivotal action finds Do√±a Prouheze making an offering to the Virgin Mary (guess what article of clothing she submits?) as a bulwark against sin. This is no small matter: She is already wedded to Don Pelagio (Ross DeGraw).

What transpires in and around these characters makes up as sprawling a narrative as that of any miracle play or soap opera, with a procession of dons, do√±as, nobles, and royals engaging in intrigue, deviousness, revenge, and atonement. It’s impossible to know whether the scenes Dobbins has selected are the best of the lot, but the pace, to keep things to three hours, is so torrential that there may as well be scorecards to track who is who. It’s also supremely frustrating that the acting levels are so disparate; some performers, quite frankly, are painful to watch. Napolitano is the true standout: She imbues Do√±a Prouheze with a feminist streak that brings a welcome whiff of modernity to the play. Mostly, though, the performers battle their way through it all, damning a great deal of sense and sensibility along the way.

Presented by the Storm Theatre and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre at the Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame, 405 W. 114th St., NYC. Jan. 8-Feb. 6. Thu. and Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 7:30 p.m. (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.