An existential nightmare in Olde Club: “The Misunderstanding” to be performed

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

As the Drama Board production of Camus’s “The Misunderstanding,” sails into Olde Club this weekend, it leaves the minor existential gloom of an infinite parade of indie rock bands in the dust. The story can briefly be described as “The Return of Martin Guerre” gone horribly wrong. A mother (Katie Sauvain ’09) and daughter (Randall Johnson ’09) run an inn in an isolated, bleak town. The family’s son (Javier Camacho ’09) returns to his family after 20 years, unrecognized. Despite the urging of his wife (Veronica Paz Soldan ’08), he does not immediately reveal his identity, and tragic consequences ensue.

The tiny space seats about 50, and features an inspired two-level set designed and built by technical director Kim Comer ’09 and atmospherically lit by stage manager and lighting designer Nora Nussbaum ’08. The bottom level serves as the public room of the inn; the upper as Jan’s room. Though the space presents many technical difficulties, the production mostly uses them to its advantage, making an intense drama almost claustrophobic. “We’ve really made it a home,” director and producer Joseph Borkowski ’08 said of the “wretchedly cold place.” “You see how if you lived there for 25 years how your soul would be a burden to you.”

The play depicts characters stuck in their lives, with choices and control but without the will to exercise them. Any of them could have prevented tragedy, but none took the essential action and everything slides inevitably downhill. Only Maria, Jan’s wife, who does not come from the village, seems to see the possibilities, but doesn’t quite manage to intervene. Through all of this, the inn’s nearly silent, mysterious, mystical servant (Mikio Akagi ’08) haunts the proceedings, seemingly all-seeing and all-knowing. “If you don’t say something, if you don’t do something, the normal order of things will be preserved…which very well will lead to despair,” Borkowski said.

The setting is nominally a small Czech village, though this is not very important. Borkowski said, “It’s not about Central Europe, it’s not about the Czech Republic, it’s not even about going to or coming back from Africa. It’s about homeland, leaving, and the prodigal son story… gone completely awry.”

The play’s plot is relatively straightforward, and the drama comes from the interactions between characters, often expressing their raw despair. Camus’s style presented new challenges to Borkowski and his cast. “We rehearsed everything through shape and reaction,” he said, and favored organic movement over formal blocking, arising naturally out of the character’s motivations and emotions. Rather than moving around the space, Borkowski urged the actors to respond to it, and to each other. “From the beginning, we went on character reacting,” he said.

The frequent, long, pregnant silences often speak louder than the words, and the actors form an effective ensemble, always seeing each other as well as themselves. There is no “lead” as such, as all seem equally important, and all seem to fully inhabit Camus’s intense and and bleak world.

Borkowski urges audience members not to shy away from the tragic nature of the play. “It can be extremely entertaining…it doesn’t need to be a comedy to entertain.” Performances are at 8:00 tonight, tomorrow night, and Sunday night in Olde Club. “It’s been a marathon, but it’s definitely been worth it,” he said.

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