“Pelleas and Melisande” serves your standard fare of castles and princesses, romance and tragedy, but this fairytale is perhaps mores akin to something out of the literature stacks than a child’s storybook.
To open its 12th season, San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater introduces a reimagining of this Symbolist play, the seminal work of Belgian author, Maurice Maeterlinck, who crafts a tale of the tragic love affair between the ill-fated Melisande and her husband’s brother, Pelleas.
In re-envisioning Maeterlinck’s classic, artistic director Rob Melrose cites such influences as Tadao Ando’s minimalist architecture and Steve Reich’s abstract musical compositions. These aesthetic influences are apparent in the final product, from the clean, angular lines of the set to the simple yet expressive staging. Ultimately, these visual details overshadow the dialogue in emotional effect. Symbolist theater, it seems, is not kind to such things like character development and linguistic subtlety.
A pioneer in the Symbolist movement, Maeterlinck spearheaded the creation of works that aimed to explore the essences of things — matters of human emotions, passions and dreams — things that lurk beneath the surface of an otherwise seemingly inconsequential scene or piece of dialogue.
In such theater, nothing is ever exactly what is seems. Instead, we are presented with a world of allegories and metaphors which, when overdone, read almost like your basic high school English class. After meeting Pelleas for the first time, Melisande remarks, “It’s impossible to see the sky here. I saw it for the first time this morning.” Such obvious allusions, however, are made lovelier and less crude through the accompanying ambiance, such as the Bill Viola-inspired video installations that project contrasting scenes of celestial darkness and hazy sunsets onto strips of wispy, ethereal fabric hanging from the ceiling.
The play thus communicates its most poignant moments not with words, but through visual display. Bodies contort and stretch in an effort to not only convey emotions, but to illustrate events that the audience is forced to imagine due to the limitations of the sparse stage. In a scene evocative of “Romeo and Juliet,” Melisande looks down from her “window” at Pelleas while he attempts to scale up the “wall” to reach her. In reality, we are forced to imagine a scene merely evoked through words and bodies. Our two title characters (played by Cutting Ball veterans Caitlyn Louchard and Joshua Bell) describe their strenuous efforts to get hold of each other, and are seen lying face-down on the ground, reaching for each other across opposite ends of the stage. The scene is stripped down to its bare action, and the tension and energy expressed are raw and perceptible.
The play’s real beauty, it seems, lies in such visual effects, the beautiful choreography of bodies that is highlighted by precisely evocative set design. The words seem to work, at best, merely as tools to provoke our imagination. Translated from the original French by Melrose himself, the lines verge on the comically melodramatic. Short and stilted, they flow naturally on the tongue of Yniold, Melisande’s young son (played by Jessica Jade Rudholm). But for the other members of the cast who are not children, the effect is oftentimes jarring.
At its best, “Pelleas and Melisande” is haunting, so much so that it is easy to see why Debussy would be inspired by it to compose an opera of the same name shortly thereafter. One scene—in which Melisande is alone, singing to herself accompanied by soft, dewdrop music—is quietly beautiful in the same vein as a piece of Debussy’s Impressionist music. It hits you at a visceral level, one that perhaps Realist portrayals are never quite able to reach.