Madwoman of Chaillot's resistance to oil still resonates

The Madwoman of Chaillot
When: Nov. 9 through Nov. 25, 8 p.m. (matinées at 2 p.m.)
Where: Phoenix Theatre at the University of Victoria
Tickets: $15 to $26
For more information:

Theatre instructor Conrad Alexandrowicz says he’s interested in theatre that goes beyond text and literally moves actors to connect more with their bodies on stage.

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“Text-based theatre is the dominant in our culture,” said Alexandrowicz, director of The Madwoman of Chaillot and an instructor at the University of Victoria Phoenix Theatre program, where the play opens tonight.

“I’m interested in plays that are not set in realism, that lend themselves to stylized, physical versions.”

Alexandrowicz has a background in dance and specializes in physical theatre. He originally wanted to do a physical adaptation of the Odyssey, but “that was too long,” he said.

So when he came across Jean Giraudoux’s fable about good and evil, written in Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War, he saw an opportunity “in the fantastical and radical concept of justice” in the play.

The Madwoman of Chaillot takes place in a Parisian café and follows the story of Countess Aurelia, an eccentric aristocrat. She gathers a group of local artists and dreamers to battle corrupt businessmen who have discovered oil under the beloved neighbourhood and want to destroy it for profit.

Alexandrowicz said he saw parallels in the play to concerns today about pipelines, protests and climate change — especially in this part of the world and among the young people he works with.

“The thorn in this piece is also asking us to consider what is justified in wiping out our enemies in self-defence,” he said. “We have to struggle with the fact we rely on fossil fuels to survive and that the industries employ real people.”

He said that one of the interesting aspects of student theatre productions is having the time and space to explore pieces as a learning experience.

Prior to rehearsing The Madwoman of Chaillot, the cast and crew (which includes students in their final three years of undergraduate studies) attended a three-day “teach in.”

“They looked into various questions we directed at them, from describing what happened at [the Nazi camp] Treblinka to questions about the oil industry and the whole concept of Naomi Klein’s extractivism,” said Alexandrowicz. Klein defines the latter as a dominance-based relationship with the Earth that involves just taking.

Students were also able to explore different acting methods, such as the Michael Chekhov acting technique — which taps into the subconscious through physicality and gesture.

“Having time to explore these things is definitely different than how a professional theatre works,” he said. “But I think our shows are quite polished and people forget where they are.”

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