Walks Like an Angel Productions
at Strawdog Theatre Company
Albert Camus begins The Stranger, his masterpiece of existential fiction, with the lines: "Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday." Jeffrey Frace begins his stage adaptation of Camus' novel with the lines: "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. I present for your consideration a murder in the first degree."
The difference between these two beginnings speaks volumes about how much Frace has missed the mark in translating Camus to the stage, and why 100 years from now people will still be reading Camus' novel, while Frace's stage version will be all but forgotten--if he's lucky--100 days from now.
Camus' subtle, artful beginning has packed within it all the qualities that make his protagonist, Meursault, a compelling character: his cool ambivalence, his ironic exactness, his willingness to acknowledge the uncertainties and ambiguities of the world. Frace begins by pushing Meursault aside and focusing on what he clearly considers the most important part of Camus' story, Meursault's trial for the seemingly senseless murder of an Arab on the beach in Algeria. In Frace's adaptation, Meursault takes a backseat to the prosecuting and defense attorneys.
Such a change would be fine if The Stranger were a traditional murder mystery in which the central question is whether or not the man on trial had committed the murder. But this question doesn't concern Camus at all--a fact he makes crystal clear when he shows, before the trial begins, that Meursault indeed shot the Arab. The prime question for Camus is not the middlebrow "Did he?" but the much harder "Why did he?" Or, even more basic, "What can any of us do now that God is dead and all of our once-eternal verities are up for grabs?"
The basic problem is that in the attempt to make Camus' intensely cerebral book stageworthy, Frace eliminates everything that makes The Stranger worth reading. He basically ignores Camus' existential questions. He dispenses with Camus' cool, alienated style, consciously modeled on the narration found in Raymond Chandler's and Dashiell Hammett's detective novels. Gone too are most of the book's intensely sensual descriptions of hot Algerian days (though Gregor Mortis's watery sound effects come close to re-creating the feel of Meursault's swims in the Mediterranean).
In their place Frace, who also directed this Walks Like an Angel production, has supplied a very noisy burlesque trial presided over by a comically pompous judge and featuring a pair of outrageous attorneys. At various times they wrestle each other, put on crazy costumes, bark like dogs, deliver long nonsensical speeches, perform odd dances, and generally yuk it up like a pair of inebriated jesters.
The interesting thing is that Sandy Borglum, playing the prosecuting attorney, throws herself into her absurd part with so much heart and soul that she almost carries it off. In fact she would have if only her partner in crime, Dan Halstead playing the defense attorney, hadn't performed everything with the same self-conscious smirk on his face, a smirk that says "I'm better than this." Even though he fails to complete nearly every comic turn he attempts.
Between these silly trial bits are moments when Meursault's mind wanders (and whose wouldn't!) back to earlier scenes in the novel. We meet in awkward flashbacks all of the characters Camus so artfully introduces in the novel: Salamano, the neighbor who loves his dog more than most people love their families; Marie, the woman with whom Meursault has a tawdry affair the day after his mother dies; and Raymond, the pimp whose argument with the brother of his Arab mistress inadvertently turns Meursault into a killer.
Some of these scenes are genuinely touching. Particularly poignant are Meursault's romantic encounters with Marie, in part because David Pudwill and Amy E. Warren make such a great couple, in part because we know Meursault may never be able to experience such moments of sweet pleasure again. More often than not, however, these scenes are marred by the sort of chronic bad acting that ruins much of the production. Both Allan Monroe and Gregory A. Tatro confuse screaming with shouting, and so perform much of their material several dozen decibels too loud for comfort. Tatro in particular plays Raymond with the sort of hammy overindulgence that makes William Shatner look like a shrinking violet.
All this bad acting leads me to believe that Frace was trying for some arch style, perhaps not unlike New Crime's trademark variation on commedia dell'arte. Instead of achieving a single genuine style, however, Frace creates a dozen clashing ones--everything from a quiet naturalism to the sort of noisy self-indulgence characteristic of Bozo's Circus. And none of them brings Frace one iota closer to the essence of Camus' novel.