Arts & Events

New: THEATER REVIEW: 'Red Virgin' at Central Works

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday November 05, 2013 - 09:07:00 AM

"To the barricades!" The epic tale of the Siege of Paris and the Paris Commune of 1870-71 is retold by Central Works in their first musical theater production, 'Red Virgin,' focusing on the figure of Louise Michel (Anna Ishida), one of the more famous of the bands of valiant women, mostly unsung, who took on a major role in the popular uprising and early attempt to govern a modern city from the bottom up.  

Central Works co-founder Gary Graves' script has provided director John Patrick Moore and the cast a few indelible scenes, well-staged in the old salon of the Berkeley City Club, one in particular the funeral of slain journalist Victor Noir, a major event in political Paris just before the Franco-Prussian War, with dark figures under umbrellas, breaking ranks and moving in a circle, chanting the Dies Irae from Berlioz's Requiem. It's this flexible approach to taking songs and tunes of the time, mostly arranged by musical director Allison Lovejoy with lyrics adapted from the originals by Graves, that gives the play its greatest charm and sense of immediacy. Not long after the Dies Irae, several cast members, notably Galen Murphy-Hoffman, who cuts a fine figure as Theophile Ferré, who will become one of the Commune's principal delegates, beloved of Louise Michel, sing verses from the lyrical French popular song of that period, "The Time of Cherries," a fine, unusually carefree moment in a play about dire events, however high the characters' spirits often seem at the start. 

(Of the music which is provided directly onstage, most is by accordionist-pianist-percussionist Diana Strong, who adds immeasurably to the staging just by her presence and playing, accompanied by cast members on guitars and percussion. The remarkable sound effects, the sound design, is by Central Works' genius of the boards--the boards behind the boards--Gregory Scharpen. Tammy Berlin's costumes, Gary Graves' light design, Travis Santell Rowland's choreography--especially when Louise and Theo dance the Apâche, or something very like it--all contribute mightily to a sense of place condensed into that intimate hall, a signature of Central Works, though never before in a musical.) 

Besides Louise, there's her former student and fellow "bastard," orphan Clemence ( which was also a pseudonym used by Michel), played with exuberance by Juliana Lustenader. But the men, for the most part, are the better served by the script--besides Murphy-Hoffman, Kenny Toll as revolutionary leader Paul Rigaut and Josh Pollock as the Marquis de Gallifet (in a way, really a procession of the military figures of the Versailles government who brutally put down the revolt and make reprisals)--as, typical of sweeping historical representations using one figure as focal point, like in biopics, the characters are drawn a bit broadly, tending to exemplify just one mood, in Louise's case, mostly a strident defiance. (That she had a humorous side, too, is shown by a sarcastic remark she once made: "We welcome agents provocateurs to our meetings, as they tend to make the most radical motions!") 

That spell is broken in a wonderful, panoramic scene, when Louise, against the taunts of the male delegates of the Commune, dresses up as her opposite, a bourgeoise "princess," and to the tune of Erik Satie's "La diva de L'Empire," cunningly marshalled into service from after the time of the Commune and adapted by Graves, she and Clémence walk the distance through the lines to Versailles, flirting with (and recruiting) soldiers, just to show they can get into the National Assembly--and close enough to "president" Thiers to assassinate him, which Louise neglects to do, though armed, as an ironic gesture to those delegates who thought it a female pipedream.  

(There's also the problem of what Mort Sahl called The Shogun Effect, characters pressed into service to ask what, to them, would normally be obtuse questions, just to provoke exposition to illuminate the audience on the facts it presumably lacks. At one point, Clémence, hearing "The Old Man," lifelong socialist revolutionary leader Louis Auguste Blanqui, mentioned, asks "Who's Blanqui?" His name may not be a household word today, but at that time, every working class person in Paris knew the Old Man's name--besides his monicker--and his visage.) 

But what it captures of that sweep of those exhilarating and tragic moments--of what has sadly become a backwater of popular history--is what gives 'Red Virgin' its flavor--specifically, that of Montmartre before the Belle Époque of painters, musicians and cabarets, a later period more familiar to theater and filmgoers in the States. 

Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 pm; Sundays at 5, till November 24, Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue. $15-$28, sliding scale at door, $28 online. Thursday's, pay what you can. 558-1381; central