Production Workshop's newest play, "The Visit," is stunning in many senses of the word. The play, opening tonight, is not only visually impressive but also disorienting, swinging its audience from one emotion to another.
A tragicomedy, "The Visit" — written by Friedrich Durrenmatt in 1956 and translated from German by Joel Agee — infuses dark humor with intense drama and ranges from delightfully absurd to disturbingly horrific.
"The Visit" holds a prominent position in German literature. Director Meredith Mosbacher '11.5 said the Department of German Studies helped fund the play as a result. The Department of Music also contributed funds to the play because music concentrator Alex Yuly '12, a former Herald graphics editor, composed the score.
The play is set in the small, poor town of Guellen ("manure," in German). Durrenmatt wrote the play so it could take place "anytime, anywhere," Mosbacher said. It was her directorial choice to set the play in "the liminal area between 1890 and 1920" in "a forgotten city in Europe that exists separately from the rest of the world," she said.
The people of Guellen are downtrodden but optimistic and express a strong sense of solidarity. The play begins as they excitedly prepare for the visit of a former resident, billionairess Claire Zachanassian (Lily Mathews '12). The members of the town, particularly her former lover, Alfred Ill (Daniel Gonon '12), fawn over her with the hope that she might donate some of her billions to their poverty-stricken town.
To their delight, Claire offers to donate one of her billions to Guellen and its residents, but she includes a condition for the donation that threatens to turn the simple, quiet town into a hotbed of deceit, fear, distrust and confusion.
One of the most striking aspects of the play is the set. The stage is built to look like a subway platform, with the audience seated on what would be the platform while the action takes place on the tunnel-like stage below them. The stage is divided into two sides: Claire's imperious residence and Alfred's general store. Both are constructed out of wooden crossbeams, in keeping with the train theme.
Megan Estes '12, the technical designer, came up with the idea for the set design and collaborated with Mosbacher to develop it.
"I always saw this show as a train, but I never saw it set in a train station," Mosbacher said. "Megan's vision created opportunities that wouldn't have been there otherwise. Ultimately I think it works really well with the show. … The train is an impetus for change in a stagnant town."
This set design has its challenges, as it reverses many of the rules associated with a traditional stage, but it also allows the audience to be more engaged with the actors.
Viewers cannot help but feel involved in the action as actors continue to engage them during intermission, adding to the realism of the play. When the audience comes back from intermission, the actors are already on stage waiting for trains and talking to each other.
The lighting also works well with the atmosphere. The designers used exposed lights to mimic the lighting in a train station. Every so often, especially in moments of high tension, the lights of a train appear along with the rumbling sounds of its approach.
Other than the sound of the trains, the play is quite quiet. The rare music heightens the drama. Yuly's eerie score is used along with traditional music from the period and region.
Mosbacher wanted to create a steampunk aesthetic, and the impressive costumes are the strongest indicator of this. At the play's outset, the townspeople wear simple peasant garb. Claire and her entourage, on the other hand, wear colorful Victorian clothing. Claire's over-the-top gowns always draw attention to her copper artificial leg — representing both the steampunk look and the characters' potential for artificiality.
As the play continues, the townspeople slowly alter their appearances to resemble Claire, reflecting their increasing wealth, Claire's influence over them and their changing attitudes.
The impressive cast of actors bring their characters to life — Mathews portrays a diabolical and hard-skinned billonairess while also revealing Claire's vulnerability and loneliness. Gonon performs well as the tortured Ill, struggling to choose between himself and the well-being of the town he loves. Additional highlights in the cast include a hilarious performance by William Ruehle '12 as three of Claire's nine husbands and Madeleine Heil '13 as the possibly insane mayor.
"The Visit" provides a rewarding and enjoyable theater experience that is incredibly unique. It is uproariously funny at times but also forces its audience to think deeply about the disturbing and important themes it presents.