European Repertory Company
at the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, Baird Hall
It's hard to think of a novel more difficult to stage than Albert Camus' seminal absurdist work The Stranger. Monsieur Meursault, the narrator and protagonist, finds no meaning in his existence. This proto slacker spends an entire afternoon watching his fellow Algerians pass by his apartment window. Ever aware of death, of the "dark horizon" in his future, he sees everything as having equal importance.
In short, most of Meursault's story is intentionally inconsequential. The first half of the novel is a string of unrelated pedestrian occurrences--Meursault drinking cafe au lait at his mother's funeral, seeing the newest comedy with his girlfriend, striking up an acquaintance with his seedy next-door neighbor. Only after he commits an inexplicable murder do these details apparently come together: an overzealous judicial system sees them as hallmarks of Meursault's criminal amorality, for which he is summarily condemned.
Of course, dramatic events are not nearly so critical in a novel as they are in a play. Camus' elegant prose and masterful portrayal of Meursault's enigmatic psychology make The Stranger an engrossing read. Whether Meursault moves forward or backward matters little; being in his presence is enough.
In adapting Camus' novel, Piotr Uzarowicz and David Walton discard almost all of Meursault's narration, choosing to present instead the major events of the novel in brief, isolated, sparsely written scenes. The result is a focused, well-paced production that ends up feeling like an outline of The Stranger, lacking the ethical and psychological intricacies that give the novel its fullness. For Camus, events are not nearly so important as Meursault's idiosyncratic commentary on them. While in his prison cell, Meursault realizes that the evening hour that once brought him a sense of peace now passes nearly unnoticed. "And so," he concludes, "I learned that familiar paths traced in the dusk of summer evenings may lead as well to prisons as to innocent, untroubled sleep." Behind his placid facade, Meursault harbors a refined, at times poetic sensibility attuned to a variety of sensual and aesthetic details.
It is this sensibility that gives an otherwise blank character a distinct human face. Unfortunately, it's all but absent from the European Repertory Company's production. Under Uzarowicz's direction, William Caploe plays Meursault as a detached observer, continually dazed and numb, fundamentally lacking in mental acuity. This Meursault seems eternally bored, a depiction that not only makes for an uninteresting central character but seems at odds with one of the most distinctive features of Camus' Meursault: his penchant for keeping himself occupied. When he spends an afternoon watching people pass by, his eye is as discriminating as an artist's: "There were little pools of brightness under the lamps, and now and then a streetcar passed, lighting up a girl's hair, or a smile, or a silver bangle." Ultimately Meursault may find his life meaningless, but he can find its details fascinating.
This production's central weakness, Meursault's character, is compounded by generally stiff acting and a repetitive staging, making for a Stranger that's disappointingly unengaging.