BWW Reviews: Intimate French Language SAVANNAH BAY Intrigues at Kennedy Center
There has been at least one high profile English language production of Marguerite Duras' Savannah Bay in the United States in the last decade or so - there was a much touted Off-Broadway production featuring Kathleen Chalfant at the Classic Stage Company in 2003, for example. Yet, there's something special about being able to experience the French drama in its original language and featuring French film/theatre talent. Theatregoers in the DC area have such a chance as Paris' Théâtre de l'Atelier stages the US premiere of its take on the play as part of the ongoing World Stages Festival at the Kennedy Center.
From the moment that an Edith Piaf vocal wafts through the Kennedy Center's Family Theatre, it's clear a major theme of the play will be of love and loss - love of others, growing or undiscovered love, love of one's past, loss of memory, and loss of those dear to us. Yet, the question is how it will be explored and for what purpose.
The focus point of the play is, in essence, a conversation. At the urging of a young woman (Anne Consigny), an older woman (Geneviève Mnich), grappling with a failing memory, shares what she knows - however fragmented the memories are - about a woman who tragically lost her life years ago in a sudden and horrifying way. As the elder's focus wanes about the question of hand, other aspects of her own life are revealed in a theatrical way that's only fitting for a woman that finds joy in her past as an actress. Although the connection between the young and the old woman initially appears tenuous at best, it becomes somewhat more clear to the audience that both lives were and continue to be heavily impacted by this past lost by virtue of a familial connection. Although not everything is completely known about the day the life was lost at Savannah Bay, the common experience of that loss - in one way or another - the shared but different relationship with the deceased woman brings the two women closer together, and other factors, kindles a a love between them despite their numerous differences - age being only one.
As the center of the play is a fragmented conversation, viewers need not expect an immense amount of action to take place. Twists and turns are revealed quietly and without much grandeur. An understated exploration of the theme is thus the name of the game. The power of this play comes from Duras' image-filled word choices (English surtitles provide a translation), which highlight the maritime theme as well as, more importantly, the pain that emerges from not having complete memories or control over them.
Mnich (stepping in for the previously announced Emmanuelle Riva) and Consigny's understated approach to telling the story may not make for a riveting night at the theatre for those expecting fireworks and overt attempts to bring the audience into the story. Yet, with this kind of script, the internal approach to telling the story is fitting.
While I did not find the play or the production of it to be a gripping and ultimately unforgettable one, I did revel in the fact that it is, at the very least, intriguing and definitely not paint-by-the-numbers. Didier Bezace's direction, coupled with Jean Haas' clean and highly artistic set design - the details of which will not be spoiled here - allows for an intimate production that's well-suited to such an intimate play. The focus is rightly on Duras' words and how they are strung together in a poetic way.
Poetry on stage. That's what it is.
Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission.
"Savannah Bay" runs through March 22, 2014 at the Kennedy Center as part of the World Stages Festival. For more details on other events in the festival and tickets to this and other selections, consult the Kennedy Center website. The festival runs through March 30, 2014.
Photo: Anne Consigny pictured; courtesy of Kennedy Center.