Theater: Puzzle Play

‘Splendour’ presents problems to solve

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‘Splendour,’ premiering at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, is an all-women project. Photo by David Allen.

By Charles Brousse

Back in the day, there was Rubik’s Cube. At the height of the craze, somebody gave me one and stood watching and smirking while I struggled to put the pieces together. I failed, an outcome that was repeated many times during the next year or two until I finally gave up and put it in a bag of discarded items that was delivered to Goodwill.

At first, my reaction to the repeated failures was frustration. With friends boasting of their increasing prowess, I wondered whether my IQ was so low that I was destined for failure in life. Gradually, however, it dawned on me that they might have it wrong. Why did it matter if I were able to reassemble the scrambled segments in five hours, five seconds or never? All I would have was the identical six-sided plastic cube that I started with. “Yes,” they said knowingly, “but it’s what lies between, the journey, that counts.”

Truth is, I never did buy that explanation, but the same mixture of frustration, self-doubt and skepticism flooded back as I left Aurora’s Mainstage Theatre in Berkeley, after the opening night performance of Splendour, by the British writer Abi Morgan. The play, which is having its Bay Area premiere, opens with Micheline, Morgan’s protagonist, alone in her upscale residence, miming rearranging shoes on imaginary closet shelves. She’s seemingly oblivious to the muffled sounds of streetfighting outside as she awaits the arrival of her dictator husband for an appointment with a foreign photojournalist. When the intermission-less drama ends about two hours later, she’s again alone, sitting in a window alcove, seemingly oblivious to the tumult that is now about to engulf her.

So what do we learn in those two hours that makes this particular journey worthwhile? Despite vague allusions by reviewers of past productions to “long buried secrets being revealed” and “insights into how violence affects the wives of strongmen around the world,” the information bin remains relatively empty.

Four women—the wife, her best friend, the photojournalist and the latter’s interpreter—gather in a small sitting room inside the presidential palace. Where this is taking place is never identified. (Some have suggested an Eastern European state like Ceausescu’s Romania, but that appears unlikely if the husband is named Julio.) The issues being fought over by the two sides are barely mentioned, let alone explored. There are abrupt time shifts. A constantly ringing telephone goes unanswered even though the caller might have vital information. Parts of scenes are repeated over and over, separated by battle noise and the sound of breaking glass as the interpreter drops a vase hidden under her coat. The women chit-chat about their past lives, accompanied by interior monologues spoken to the audience about their real feelings toward each other and other personal subjects. From this we glean that Genevieve, Micheline’s best friend for 35 years, has really despised her all that time, the interpreter is both unreliable and a kleptomaniac and the journalist herself is a victim of the myth that the profession demands that she stay on the job despite any danger. It’s a pretty meager harvest. Only in the final minutes is there a serious recognition of the perilous situation they are in and what to do about it.  

My point is that, from a content perspective, Splendour is essentially a complex structural puzzle that, like the Rubik’s Cube, may not be worth trying to solve. On the positive side, Aurora must be complimented for casting four accomplished female actors—Lorri Holt as Micheline, Mia Tagano as Genevieve, Denmo Ibrahim as the photojournalist and Sam Jackson as the interpreter. The addition of director Barbara Damashek makes it (on the performance side) an all-women project. Despite the script’s shortcomings, it’s one small but welcome step in addressing theater’s endemic gender disparity.

NOW PLAYING: Splendour runs through July 23 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley; 510/843-4822; auroratheatre.org.

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