The most unassuming diva on the planet shines in The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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The most unassuming diva on the planet shines in The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez

Melissa Lorraine of Theatre Y gets to be herself in this late play by Peter Handke.

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How do you solve a problem like Melissa Lorraine? I thought she was something special the first time I saw her onstage, just under five years ago, in the little upstairs space at the Royal George Theatre. She was performing Juliet, an evening-length monologue by Romanian writer András Visky. Based on his mother's sufferings under communist rule, Juliet was harrowing. And Lorraine was vivid. By the time I saw her in another Visky work, Porn—also about Romanian despotism—I was ready to declare that "I'd sit through anything she chose to perform."

Sometimes that hasn't been easy. Part of the reason is aesthetic and worth applauding. With her company, Theatre Y, Lorraine does insistently difficult work: heterodox, cerebral, often dark in that Manichaean way specific to eastern-European drama. But I've also felt that she's far too willing to hide her light under a bushel. Lorraine must be the most unassuming diva on the planet, serving visions that not only don't serve her but undermine what she's capable of bringing to a performance.

The worst example of that tendency came last fall, with the Theatre Y production of Happy Days. Until I saw it, I'd have thought Samuel Beckett's masterwork would be ideal for Lorraine: Centered on a woman named Winnie who spends two acts buried, first up to her waist and then up to her neck, in a mound in the middle of what the stage directions call an "expanse of scorched grass," the play's very perversity offers the opportunity for a tour de force. Yet the director—our friend Visky—chose to bury his Winnie even further, under a facile metaphor having to do with modern technology. Rather than scorched grass, the mound was constructed out of monitors and keyboards, and Lorraine seemed to have been coached toward clipped, electronic speech. My Reader colleague Jack Helbig loved it, and he's discerning; but I considered it a frustrating waste of talent.

Well, maybe Lorraine did too, because she's stepped out from under the paraphernalia for the current Theatre Y show, The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez.

A 2012 "summer dialogue" by that formidable Austrian Peter Handke, Aranjuez is as heavy in its way as any of the company's previous efforts—and very, very European. It carries the weight extremely well, though, under the direction of Zeljko Djukic, best known locally as the founder of TUTA Theatre Chicago.

The premise is disarmingly simple. A Man and a Woman (youngish, but not too young) loll in a garden on yet "another beautiful summer day." She wears a long, white, breezy cotton gown of the type one can simply throw over one's head to be dressed. Or undressed. He affects a beat-up, short-brimmed Panama hat. He mostly sits at a rough grayed-wood picnic table, slicing up biblical apples. She mostly orbits him. They've just started playing a game in which he asks prying questions that she's obliged to answer. He opens, of course, with, "The first time, you and a man, how did it go?" But her answer isn't similarly dopey; in fact, it reminded me of Walt Whitman's account of making love to his own soul, in "Song of Myself." "I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning," Whitman wrote. "How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me. . . . "

And so it goes. Stimulus and unexpected response, eroticism that's powerfully present yet displaced, thickly, into language—into games, stories, philosophy, poetry, and sometimes into despair.

These discourses have a stilted air to them in the new English translation by Michael Roloff and Scott Abbott. Maybe that's appropriate. After all, Handke's given us characters who dream about the Pleiades, rhapsodize on the properties of a robin, and reference authors from Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill to Ödön von Horváth. Then too, there's something of the old man's valediction about Aranjuez, both for better and for worse. Handke was 70 when the play premiered in German, and despite all the fascinating summing up it does, it can also settle into intellectual complacency. The Woman, in particular, spouts retrograde foolishness at times, constructed out of tired old shards of the male gaze.

Still, none of that matters as much as it probably should, thanks to Djukic's nearly perfect directorial touch. His approach is light and playful, sure, but more: It actually fulfills that ideal you hear tell so much about, of creating a world. Defined in no small part by Natasha Vuchurovich Dukich's costume and set designs, the atmosphere is so richly allusive you could go for a swim in it. We're on the lake where The Seagull takes place, at the Tuscan summerhouse from Stealing Beauty, witnessing an idyll from a Truffaut film (before all hell breaks loose). A bit involving an old parlor game takes on marvelous resonances.

Similarly, Kevin V. Smith's Man and Lorraine's Woman have a history from the first moment we see them. Smith builds an interesting, idiosyncratic sexual identity from—well, I don't know quite how he does it, but it's clear without an explicit word being said. And Lorraine is finally allowed to be Lorraine. Ranging through the space, playful, steely, self-absorbed, unencumbered, she shines.  v

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