nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 1, 2010
The Storm Theatre and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre complete their cycle of plays by Paul Claudel with Noon Divide (Le Partage de Midi). With their previous productions of The Satin Slipper and The Tidings Brought to Mary, this has been an invaluable project, providing New Yorkers with a rare glimpse at the dramatic writing of this noted diplomat, poet, and religious thinker.
Written in 1906, Noon Divide takes place at the turn of the 20th century, at the time of the Boxer Rebellion; the first act is set on a boat bound for Hong Kong from France, while the second and third acts happen in China. There are just four characters in this somewhat claustrophobic piece: De Ciz is a French speculator/businessman who plans to make his fortune in China, Yse is his wife, and Amalric and Mesa are two men who are in love with her. Amalric, powerful and direct, had a fling with Yse before her marriage and is pleased to encounter her—and to attempt to renew the romance—here on the ship. Mesa, a friend of Amalric's, is a career civil servant and in many ways his opposite: introspective and unprepossessing with women. The play charts the relations among these four, with Yse obviously at the center and Mesa the protagonist, wrestling with himself about which is worse, to engage in an adulterous affair or to deny the bidding of one's heart.
Storm artistic director Peter Dobbins (who is also co-director of this production and portrays Mesa in it) told me that Claudel wrote his plays not for commercial production but for himself, and so it's not surprising that here as in the others Storm has mounted there are significant challenges to making the work clear and accessible to audiences. Noon Divide actually feels like the most accessible of the works, with its relatively straightforward and streamlined narrative; but Claudel interestingly chooses to show just three transitional moments in the lives of his characters, with most of the direct actions they take occurring offstage in between the acts. Act Two unfolds in a cemetery in Hong Kong, where De Ciz bring Yse to meet Mesa; he is on his way out of town for a lengthy business trip and decides to entrust his wife in the care of Mesa. Does he know the two are in love? That's just one of the unanswered questions Claudel poses here.
Act Three takes places two years later in a remote Chinese village. Monumental events have transpired, changing the lives of all four characters, and now Amalric, Yse, and Mesa are in genuine mortal danger. And they're also in danger of losing their souls.
The language has a sometimes unnatural rhythm that requires us to listen carefully and to adjust to its style. Dobbins and his co-director Stephen Logan Day realize the piece with economy and surprising lightness. There is humor in the play and they bring it out; yet they never slight Claudel's serious aspirations here, to consider a weighty moral/spiritual conundrum inspired by similar events in his own life.
Designer Laura Taber Bacon uses the unusually configured stage at the Theatre at the Church of Notre Dame to fine advantage and she has provided costumes that reflect the characters of each of the four personalities in the play. Michael Abrams's lighting is subtle and evocative.
Dobbins gives a thoughtful, well-considered performance as Mesa, showing us the understated public face of this shy, dry fellow as well as the aching romantic heart and troubled soul beneath. Chris Kipiniak is his match as the more callow but more vigorous Amalric. Brian J. Carter gives us a somewhat enigmatic (and very intriguing) De Ciz; we are never sure how much he suspects about his wife's affairs. And at the center of it all, Kate Chamuris is a strong, intoxicating presence as Yse. There's never a question, with her performance, as to why these men are so interested in this captivating woman.
Noon Divide is a somewhat challenging play to approach but yields real rewards for its audience. Storm's presentation of the works of Claudel has clearly been a labor of love and we are the better for our having had a chance to sample them. I am, as ever, excited to discover what Dobbins and his collaborators choose to bring us next.