Mrs. and Mr. Pontellier

The  Brooklyn Lyceum used to be a public bath house, one of those grand, old public works erected during the borough’s Gilded Age efflorescence. It was left derelict during the 70s, and now it is a cavernous, unfinished space with exposed brick walls, thirty-foot-high ceilings, and interior structures built of plywood and wood screws covered in cheap bluish primer. Functionally it’s like a page in a Medieval manuscript scraped clean of its original writing, though incompletely erased marks of its past peep through. The whir of the ceiling fans sounds like crickets, and the lights flicker like gas lamps.

The house didn’t open until almost ten minutes after the show was scheduled to start because the ancient, improvised electrical system refused to cooperate. Once we were seated, we waited another twenty minutes as the light guys tried to figure out why the light cues weren’t working. When the actors finally took the stage, the Lyceum sat back and opened its lap like a New Orleans madam for the players to play in.

This is the space where Ugly Rhino Productions has put on their “micro season” for the last three years. A micro season consists of several shows in repertory for a short run (just a few weeks), musical acts, and occasionally the delicious meal. Wednesday night’s show was the play The Awakening, a free Indian dinner catered by Baluchi’s in Park Slope, and the original musical Glamdromeda. I do not exaggerate when I say the space is as much a performer in the overall drama as the flesh and blood cast members. The old ghosts who inhabit the space create an environment where collective, human apprehension can be conjured out of air. That is the medium in which actors live and breathe, and its contribution to The Awakening cannot be overstated.

The Awakening is an adaptation of Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel, set on an island in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana and in New Orleans. The story follows a twenty-eight year-old mother of two, Edna Pontellier, who falls in love for the first time with a man who is not her husband. Over the course of a year she becomes alienated from her family and the social roles required of her as wife and mother. This story trope has achieved the status of an article of faith for feminism. It is the basis of very popular movies like The Bridges of Madison County and Eat, Pray, Love. Some folks have even argued that this storyline, promoted through TV and movies, is responsible for bringing down the birthrate in developing countries. Seen from this perspective, Edna’s awakening is freedom, the chance to be a full person, and a positive development.

Chopin’s style was widely praised in the 20th century as a bridge between the naturalism of French 19th century writers and Modernism. Psychological realism — the exploration of the individual’s psyche — motivates both the narrator and the protagonist. In a lesser artist (like Ayn Rand) this device leads to narrative solipsism: we do not simply see a fully realized portrait of a person coming into awareness of themselves, but rather, we are taught that there is only the individual psyche capable of coming into awareness. The possibility of anything like a collective mind or group sensibility is dismissed as false ideology or suffocating illusion. But Chopin isn’t a lesser artist. Her treatment of Edna’s awakening isn’t triumphalist individualism; it is true tragedy.

Chopin highlights Mrs. Pontellier’s tragic character with a metaphor: Edna is afraid of swimming. Her lover — the young, charming, impulsive Mr. Robert Lebrun — attempts to teach her at the beach while her husband is at his men’s club. At the beginning of the play water is an irrational unknown — no more, nor less. Edna wants to know it, but she is embarrassed by her fear and so fails to learn. Then, one special night, after a champagne drenched soiree, she goes for a midnight swim at Mr. Lebrun’s prompting under the August moon. Suddenly the horizon becomes her goal. She swims aggressively for the first time in her life. When she stops she realizes she is literally in deep water, and starts to panic. Then she tuens back to the shore, thinking to herself that the water between her and safety is merely her fear. She rises to the challenge,  and back on dry land she resolves never to give up her newfound freedom.

The next day she runs away with Lebrun for eighteen hours. A week later he runs away to Mexico to escape their incipient affair. She pines in her husband’s New Orleans mansion, until he says he must go to New York for some months on business. She sends away her children, moves into a tiny bungalow down the street, and pursues her passion for painting. She learns through a friend that Mr. Lebrun is back, and though he is clearly avoiding her, she arranges to run into him at a local cafe. He rejects her, and she goes back to the island to recreate her swim. The play ends inconclusively with her swimming to the horizon, though in the novel it is clear that she sinks beneath the waves and drowns. It turns out she only learned part one of a two part swimming lesson. Lesson one was to lose your fear. Lesson two is never lose sight of the shore.

Megan Jones and Harrison Unger lead the cast as Edna Pontellier and Robert Lebrun. She is melancholic, mercurial, and giddy, perfectly capturing the spirit of Edna’s doomed, quixotic quest to sever herself from all social ties. He is warm, sensuous, and sanguine — a perfect picture of an impetuous, boyish lover. His transformation into a shamefaced coward at the end of the play is striking, which serves to underline Mr. Unger’s talent as an actor. Technical failures aside, Director Nicole Rosner and set designer Kathryn Lieber creatively and satisfyingly fill the cavernous space of the Lyceum with action and emotion. I look forward to seeing more of the Ugly Rhino’s creative élan animating the spirits and shadows of the Brooklyn Lyceum.

Through September 8th (Tickets here)

Brooklyn Lyceum

227 4th Avenue  Brooklyn