Failure to Astonish

Legend has it that French writer, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau's aesthetic was shaped by an injunction from the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. The young Cocteau, having achieved a minor measure of celebrity as a poet in Paris before World War I, complained to Diaghilev that the older man did not seem to take Cocteau's poems and drawings seriously. "Etonne-moi!" responded the Russian expatriate.

Through an eclectic body of work that spanned the next five decades, Cocteau sought to fulfill that command: He attempted, as Diaghilev suggested, to "astonish" his colleagues and the public with a prolific outpouring of poems, novels, dramas, ballets, films, criticism, journalism, and paintings, much of which leaned toward the avant-garde. His detractors judged him a frivolous dilettante who dabbled in many forms without mastering any; his advocates celebrated him as a Renaissance man, championing his lifelong commitment to experimentation.

Coming of age in the creative milieu of France in the first quarter of this century, Cocteau counted among his friends and collaborators many of the towering giants of modernism. He conceived the scenarios for several theatrical ballets, including the innovative Parade (1917), which boasted set designs and costumes by Picasso and music by Erik Satie. His most famous novel Les Enfants Terribles (Children of the Game, 1929) chronicles a perversely close relationship between a brother and sister. His diverse works for the stage include La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice, 1930), a one-act monologue in which a woman carries on with her lover by telephone, and modern adaptions of Greek dramas such as Antigone and Oedipus. Ultimately, his most enduring legacies are his movies: Le Sang d'un Poete (The Blood of a Poet, 1930) remains a seminal work of experimental cinema, while the intricately textured, dreamlike La Belle et la Bete (Beauty and the Beast, 1946) and Orphee (Orpheus, 1950) tap the medium's uniquely hallucinatory and haunting power in ways that rival any films before or since.

Shifting focus from one genre to the next never distracted Cocteau because he considered himself, above all else, a poet who trafficked in imagery with multiple meanings and associations. His best work juxtaposes written or visual images that attempt to reconcile the contradictions obsessing him: the internal world of the poet-artist and the external world of every day; the limitless realm of the imagination and the finite arena of conventional life; the magical haunts of childhood and the grimmer realities of adulthood; the resonant qualities of ancient myth and ritual and the alienation inherent in contemporary culture.

"The secret of poetry is to take things from the places in which habit has set them and reveal them from a different angle, as though we see them for the first time," Cocteau once wrote. But not all of his efforts achieved the revelations for which he strove. Take for example the play Les Parents Terribles, a three-act melodrama written, atypically, in a naturalistic vein, and meant simultaneously to explore the oedipal relationship between a disturbed mother and her man-child son and to spoof popular Parisian comedies known as boulevard farces.

Perhaps the French version of Les Parents exhibits flashes of poetry. But Jeremy Sams's English translation, entitled Indiscretions, proves distinctly prosaic on-stage at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, where it opens that theater's 1996-97 season. (It enjoyed a mostly well-received run on Broadway in 1995, under a different director and with a different first-run cast.) To be fair, the original may never have lived up to Cocteau's intentions: At the 1938 Parisian premiere, audiences laughed at parts Cocteau meant to be tragic, reportedly devastating the playwright.

In keeping with Cocteau's tendency to surprise and unnerve, the play depicts a middle-class clan whose members transgress the fragile boundaries of what Freud termed "the family romance." In the Playhouse production Yvonne (Sandra Shipley) yearns for her son Michael (Rick Stear) with more passion than a mother should; to protect Mom, Michael conceals his engagement to Madeleine (Gretchen Egolf); Yvonne's sister Leonie (Meg Foster), who lives with and financially supports the family, loves Yvonne's husband George (Greg Mullavey); George, in the meantime, is off having an affair with (have you guessed yet?) Madeleine.

Cocteau wrote Les Parents as a vehicle for Jean Marais, his acting protege at the time, who went on to become one of France's most acclaimed actors. The play's matriarch Yvonne was inspired by Marais's relationship with his grasping mother. But Cocteau also drew on his own experiences growing up in a tight-knit bourgeois family whose values, no matter how much he satirized or exposed them in his art, clung to him all his life. Always close to his mother, Cocteau lived in her Paris apartment on and off until he was 40.

The allusions to incest shocked -- shocked -- Parisian authorities when the work opened; it was banned at one theater, then transferred to another. When the show was revived three years later, in 1941, Paris was under the thumb of the Nazi-sympathizing Vichy regime. The play's alleged immorality incited riots.

Directed by Obie Award-winner Andre Ernotte, this relatively tame Indiscretions will be lucky to provoke a raised eyebrow or two. The production is helped by a lively second act that breaks the monotony of acts one and three, accomplished performances (especially by Stear and Egolf), James Noone's knockout set designs, and Ellis Tillman's elegant costumes. A polished production, however, cannot alter the fact that Cocteau's indictment of suffocating family life has withstood neither the test of time nor translation.

The talky script, in Sams's version anyway, commits the cardinal sin that students in Creative Writing 101 are warned about: The characters tell us everything in long expository paragraphs -- especially during an insufferably flat first act -- instead of showing us who they are through action and interaction. And because the script bangs us over the head with speeches about the play's themes, we never stand a chance of intuiting those themes, which include the tension between order and disorder in domestic life, the conflict between fate and free will in determining one's destiny, and the damage inflicted by despairing elders on their hopeful children. In other words, for a show about subterranean longings, very little happens below the surface of the text. Instead of scathing psychological insights, Indiscretions serves up soap opera.

Ernotte resets the play in present-day New Orleans and saddles his actors with Louisiana accents. (The decadent Southern locale recalls another poet of the theater, Tennessee Williams, in whose shadow, by comparison, Cocteau the dramatist pales.) Because the director fails to set a consistent tone for the show the evening awkwardly ricochets between burlesque, camp, and tragedy. Ernotte never elicits a sense of mystery about the play's issues and relationships, both of which demand more complexity: Nothing beyond the obvious is evoked, hinted at, or even embellished.

Although hampered by a banal script, the actors manage to deliver energetic, although rarely nuanced, performances. Shipley as the life-sucking mother, Foster as the Machiavellian aunt whose frozen heart begins to melt by Act Three, and Mullavey as the ineffectual father-husband-paramour all have their moments. But Stear and Egolf, as the young lovers, carry the show. The play takes off when they are together during Act Two. The chemistry between them is so palpable we feel something is actually happening on-stage instead of events and emotions only being talked about. Egolf not only depicts Madeleine as equal parts self-possessed, vulnerable, graceful, and tough, she makes us care enough about her to root for her happiness with Michael. And Stear conveys ambiguity in his portrayal of Michael -- the actor has the character deftly shift from a deliriously happy young man to a spoiled wounded child to a rejected lover whose depression may prove dangerous to himself and the people around him.

Considering the richness of some of Cocteau's other creations, Indiscretions's one-dimensionality disappoints. The play's treatment at Coconut Grove Playhouse can hardly be termed bad theater. It just is not, in the tradition of Cocteau's master works, astonishing.

Indiscretions (Les Parents Terribles).
Written by Jean Cocteau; directed by Andre Ernotte; with Sandra Shipley, Meg Foster, Greg Mullavey, Rick Stear, and Gretchen Egolf. Through November 24. For information, call 442-4000 or see "Calendar Listings.

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