Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium presents Jean Giraudoux’s ‘The Enchanted’

Into the woods

I'm always excited to see an Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium (IRC) production, because Tina Brock's company -- dedicated to absurdist theater -- guarantees I'll experience a play I've never seen before, or one freshly staged in their inspired style.

Isabel’s sixth-grade class, with puppets designed by Mark Williams. (Photo by Johanna Austin at AustinArt)

IRC's 11th season continues with Jean Giraudoux's The Enchanted, the French writer's 1933 romantic drama. In a fable-like setting with a simple story, it explores vast issues about the human spirit.

An inspector calls

In the forest outside a small provincial town, the Mayor (Melissa Amilani) and the Doctor (Jane Moore) meet the Inspector (David Stanger), a government official sent to investigate a potential haunting. The Inspector is concerned because society seems out of order. For example, the local millionaire didn't win the lottery as usual. "It's no longer acceptable to be unhappy," he discovers. "Fortune is displaying some intelligence."

The Inspector loudly denies the ghost's existence, but detects "termites in the social structure," identifying substitute teacher Isabel (Anna Lou Hearn) as the cause. He accuses her of teaching young girls "the ways to happiness," which "misleads them as to the nature of life." Science, he explains, sucks the magic out of life, and drudgery is nature's way.

The play remains solidly against the Inspector, not just because of Stanger's fittingly obnoxious and overbearing performance (any resemblance to modern politicians is, of course, accidental), but also because the world Brock assembles around them is so exquisitely magical. Isabel's students are played by Muppet-like puppets, designed by Mark Williams, adorably manipulated and voiced by Daniel Barland, Margaret McKiven, and Candra Kennedy. Bob Schmidt and Tomas Dura play the town's busybody Mangebois sisters in bright dresses.

Set designer Erica Hoelscher again transforms the small Walnut Street Theatre's Studio 5, making the floor and walls a lush green, defined with abstract trees and leaves as well as a colorful central wall behind which the puppets (there are more for other roles) perform. An Oriental rug center stage, incongruously but perfectly, completes the set. Hoelscher also designed the colorful costumes, which also help give The Enchanted a fairy-tale look that suits the cast's bright performances.

The design work -- which also includes Peter Whinnery's bold, mysterious lighting and Brock's lush sound design, using music from Danny Elfman's Edward Scissorhands and other film fantasies -- helps us believe. However, the Doctor cautions that "Nature is hatching a surprise for us," and the story's twists defy easy explanation or categorization. The town, and the audience, are immersed in a mysterious tension caused by "a vibrating endlessly between two falsehoods."

Plus a love story

The Enchanted climaxes with a complicated romantic triangle. Isabel loves the Supervisor (John D'Alonzo) and the Ghost (Daniel Barland), and each makes a tantalizing offer. Their complex, sincere performances, particularly given the play's fantasy moorings, are well calibrated for a special universe where reality and fantasy merge, as are all the characters around them.

Balance locks in this play's success, and IRC's as well. While The Enchanted is often funny, Brock never lets the laughs overwhelm the story and its existential issues, or vice versa. Instead of choosing one over the other, IRC embraces both; together, they're greater than the sum of their parts. 

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