The Satin Slipper
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 16, 2010
The Storm Theatre and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre are giving New York its first look at Paul Claudel's The Satin Slipper, an epic drama of the spirit written more than 80 years ago. Claudel was one of those polymath intellectuals that don't seem to exist so much nowadays, prominent as a diplomat, poet, and dramatist whose work was informed by his deep Catholic faith; he was also the brother of artist Camille Claudel. Peter Dobbins, director of The Satin Slipper, told me that the play was originally written to be performed over a four-day period, spanning around 12 hours of playing time. Dobbins has pared it down considerably, to just under three hours in length. His production, which inaugurates a lovely and welcome new Manhattan theatre space in the basement of the Church of Notre Dame, challenges audiences to absorb and attend to the wide-ranging ideas and plot points that Claudel brings to his sometimes undisciplined script. In introducing us to an authentic lost masterwork of the last century, and in its ultimate, stark message of redemption through pure and unconditional love, The Satin Slipper is absolutely worth your time.
The play takes place in Spain and all over the world, at the turn of the 17th century or thereabouts. (I do not know how true to actual history Claudel is or intends to be.) The story of The Satin Slipper revolves around Dona Prouheze, the young wife of a Spanish nobleman/official, Don Pelagio. Pelagio is much older than Prouheze and has few illusions about her love for him, but he expects fidelity. Prouheze is in fact in love with the dashing Don Rodrigo (and he with her); she is being wooed by the adventurer Don Camillo. The plot is complicated and, during the largely expository first act, dense and sometimes hard to parse. What transpires, though, is that the King of Spain orders Don Rodrigo to become master of his domains in America and Don Pelagio sends his wife to look after his own interests in Morocco, at least in part to keep her away from Rodrigo. Don Camillo turns up in Morocco. Over decades and across an ocean, the sacred love of Prouheze and Rodrigo is tested.
Claudel crowds the play with incident and characters; the story becomes much more straightforward as the focus falls more steadily on the two lovers and what occurs around them evolves more and more into counterpoint and commentary on the course of their love. Supernatural and spiritual entities abound: Dona Prouheze's Guardian Angel makes two pivotal appearances during the piece; we also meet and hear from Don Rodrigo's saintly brother (dying while rigged to the mast of a sinking ship), Saint James (as a constellation of stars), and the Moon. Saint Teresa of Avila frames the play—both the prologue and epilogue are given over to her in sung prayer. Many other personages, from the King of Spain to a Gleaner Nun, inhabit the story as well.
Dobbins provides a brisk pace and a deep compassion in his staging, moving us rapidly through the (abridged) play's 27 scenes. A few set pieces appear now and then to help anchor us to a particular location; mostly he relies on us to listen and imagine as he moves his actors on and off a long, narrow stage that splits the audience in too, sweeping us through the story in a kind of Shakespearean style. A map of the world dominates the set, which is designed by Ken Larson. Beautiful and plentiful period costumes by Laura Tabor Bacon adorn the cast, while evocative theatrical lighting by Michael Abrams completes the visual environment.
There are 16 actors employed here, including Storm regulars Ross McGraw, expansive and commanding as Don Pelagio, and Dan Berkey, who brings strength and clarity to the role of the Guardian Angel, Don Rodrigo's brother, and a few other characters. Meredith Napolitano takes the demanding role of Donna Prouheze and holds us captivated throughout. Harlan Work is Don Rodrigo; his character is absent for most of the first half of the play (though he is indeed the protagonist of the story); when he finally emerges as the anchor of the second half he holds the stage brilliantly. Christopher Tocco, from the West Coast, is enormously effective as Don Camillo and as occasional narrator of the play—he is blessed with a charismatic presence and a deep sonorous voice, and I hope I will see him on stage again in the future.
Erin Teresa Beirnard, who had the lead in Storm Theatre's first Claudel show, The Tidings Brought to Mary, has three lovely cameos here, as Dona Musica (a friend to Dona Prouheze), the Moon, and the Gleaner Nun. Cherly Burek sings Saint Teresa's role beautifully. Completing the noteworthy cast are Dinh Q. Doan, Merel Julia, Gabe Bettio, Michelle Kafel, Maury Miller, Joshua Dixon, Anthony Russo, Cassandra Palacio, and nine-year-old Megan Doyle, most of whom take several roles during the evening.
At once a sprawling epic and a staggeringly intimate love story, The Satin Slipper conveys the simple, powerful message of living by following the example of Jesus Christ. Claudel's moral clarity, and his interest in exploring the nature of his moral position from every angle, distinguish The Satin Slipper from just about any contemporary drama that I can think of. I am grateful to the folks at the Storm and Blackfriars Repertory Theatres for giving us a chance to witness it first-hand.