It’s a ghost story, a romance, a melodrama. It’s got the spirit of the 1920s in the setting of the 1670s. It’s got a dancing master, an actor, a priest, evil stepsisters (all right, sisters-in-law), a long-lost relation, and of course, a countess. It’s the new comedie-ballet “The Narcoleptic Countess” from the Dance Department’s Artist in Residence Patricia Beaman, at the Center for the Arts Theater this weekend. And it promises to be quite a romp.
“I suppose, in a nutshell, it’s an upstairs-downstairs drama,” Beaman said. “I was very interested in the transition after Louis XIV and the ancien régime began to crumble, and then there were more freedoms under Louis XV, and then Louis XVI happens and it all comes down like a house of cards.”
Beaman describes her style as “neo-Baroque,” and the show is appropriately set in France in the 1670s. In that world of glamour and opulence, Beaman said, women were highly dependent on their husbands. Marriages were often arranged, which meant that husbands frequently died long before their wives, but were not always interested in leaving them an income in their will. “The Narcoleptic Countess” tells the story of a young countess whose husband died a year ago, leaving a will with instructions not to open it until a year after his death. For the moment, his widow has support—but after the reading of the will, that could well change.
“He [the count] died in a duel over another man’s wife,” Beaman said. “So that’s sort of an inglorious end in itself; the countess had to put up with that shame. And he feels so bad about this that he’s going to haunt her until she forgives him. And of course, her narcoleptic state allows for these visits.”
In addition to that drama, though, a dancing master comes to the estate, the count’s sisters scheme to steal the will, and their estranged son Remi (estranged because he left home to become an actor) arrives home, now very successful and in command of his own troupe. In all, it’s an 18-person cast, with an additional guest appearance by one of the five-person Javanese dance troupes.
“As I was going along in my head, I would think of the character, and all of a sudden the student would pop up. Lena Solow [’12], I saw her perform and I knew that she had the poise and vibrancy, and I knew that she could carry the countess. [She] had the gravitas…The Dancing Master, Nik Owens [’12], I was biting my nails
that he wouldn’t go abroad because there was no question in my mind, he had to be it,” Beaman said. “And everyone else, really, the minute I’d come up with a character I knew which student I wanted to use. Of course there were some wild cards, and that’s great, because you don’t want to know everyone going in.”
The performance also features a member of the class of 2011 as Pasquin, the countess’s faithful Major Domo, Christian Morehouse ’11 as Remi, and Christina Burkot ’11 as the Ghost of the Count. With a simple but evocative set pulled from the theater’s scenic shop and pseudo-period costumes and lighting by members of the Theater Department, the show represents an unusual, though not unprecedented, collaboration between the two departments. Most remarkable, though, is the play’s neat integration of 1920s culture and spirit into the Baroque France setting. Beaman said that she was inspired in part to make this choice by the silent films of French director Jean Durand and, true to that spirit, the ballet features often comical and stylized super-titles for some of the dialogue and narration, which have been engineered by outside artist Justin Luchter to look exactly like those from the original silent movies. Music from 1920s dance halls has also been incorporated into the comedic “downstairs” bits with the domestic servants.
Although “The Narcoleptic Countess” is more theatrical than most of the Dance Department’s offerings, Beaman is still hoping that the dances—some original, some reconstructed from 17th-century sources—will carry the night.
“I hope that the dance can convey emotion,” she said. “I hope that it can convey emotion, and betrayal, and heartbreak, and happiness, and being mystified and flirtatious and attracted or in love or in lust…all that stuff. I hope that people are able to get away from the internet and step back into the world I’ve created.”
“The Narcoleptic Countess” is performing today and tomorrow at 8:00 p.m. in the CFA Theater. Tickets are $6.00 for Wesleyan students.