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The terror remains unseen in The Plague, Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Albert Camus’s classic tale of a society undone by disease. As it should.
The five fine actors who comprise the company of Lantern Theater’s streaming production (the play’s US premiere) do not spit blood, foam at the mouth, or stagger about the stage like zombies in an attempt to communicate the danger caused by invisible pathogens spreading throughout a small Algerian city. The only hint of the infected rats carrying the dreaded virus comes through the subtle hisses and shrieks of Christopher Colucci’s sound design. This calm, seemingly ordinary behavior belies not only an enemy both abstract and ever-present, but the existential dread that permeates when the adversary cannot be perceived by the naked eye.
It’s a feeling uncomfortably familiar to our own pandemic situation, where day in and day out we must contend with a sickness that we can never entirely avoid. The blasé attitudes and withering dismissals of some of the characters in The Plague feel especially harrowing at a moment when our country wants desperately to be done with this coronavirus, even as this coronavirus makes perfectly clear it’s not done with us.
Well, as Camus might have said: Plus ça change. He crafted his cautionary tale of humankind’s destructive tendencies in 1947, and Bartlett, in a seemingly prescient mood, devised this theatrical rendering in 2017. Leigh Ivory Clark Paradise’s handsome costumes suggest an indeterminate time period—a reminder that plagues come and go, but one is never too far away.
An old-fashioned pestilence
Under Charles McMahon’s slow-boiling direction, the story unfolds in flashback, with all the typical unreliability of memory baked into the narrative. In a matter of weeks, a lone dead rat spotted in the corridor of an apartment house by the mild-mannered Dr. Rieux (Anthony Lawton) morphs into a contagion that closes the city’s gates, forcing the community to come together—or not—as a matter of survival. The residents must balance personal desires with public health dictates and adapt to restrictions that, to some, feel like tyranny. (Again, sound familiar?)
Bartlett presents the story from all angles. Rieux’s early recognition of the condition’s seriousness seems extreme to others; in one unsettling scene, a panel of colleagues privilege political matters over public safety when determining how to proceed. The journalist Rambert (J Hernandez) shows how facts and opinions can be conflated and distorted. Statistician Mr. Grand (Kirk Wendell Brown) strives to understand the reality through numbers, while sad-sack Cottard (an animated Amanda Schoonover) takes a biblical perspective, thinking a good old-fashioned pestilence might be exactly what the world needs to right itself.
The result is a gripping study of human behavior. We can never know how we’ll act in a crisis until one befalls us, and Bartlett and McMahon show how purviews change, or don’t, in real time. The seriousness of the moment creeps in as death tolls rise. The actors suggest the knowledge gained and hope lost in each person. Seated at the lip of James F. Pyne Jr.’s simple wooden set, they occasionally function as a sort of Greek chorus, recounting stories that prove pandemics don’t respect boundaries of profession, class, or race.
Echoes of the Enemy
Rieux seems like a direct descendent of Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the protagonist of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, who also tries somewhat in vain to warn his neighbors of the dangers that lurk just beneath their feet. Rieux’s inability to sugarcoat the plague’s severity marks him as a forebearer to those today who were dismissed, ridiculed, and even punished for recognizing the grim nature of our current real-life pandemic. Lawton smartly underplays the doctor’s anger, fear, and resignation.
Brown movingly conveys Grand’s sweet desire to use the ongoing tragedy to reconnect with his absent wife, while Hernandez vibrates with anxiety at being trapped as a stranger in an unfamiliar place, stuck and stripped of all he holds dear. Peter DeLaurier gives voice to the conscience as an aging roué whose eyes are opened to the virtues of service in the face of death.
Watching this production with the knowledge and experience of the past 19 months is not a pleasant experience. Yet unlike many works that seek to appliqué a pandemic patina and rub the audience’s nose in a pile of heavy-handed metaphor, this chilling work makes its points through subtlety and, occasionally, obfuscation. It invites the viewers to recognize themselves in the characters and to feel uncomfortable doing so.
What, When, Where
The Plague. By Neil Bartlett, based on a novel by Albert Camus; directed by Charles McMahon, Lantern Theater Company. Streaming on demand through November 7, 2021. $20 per household or $35 for a Digital Season pass, which includes access to Me and the Devil (through October 17). 215-829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.
The Plague is closed captioned.
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