Venom, obsession, intrigue and farce, mark Beer Sheva Theatre’s superb production of Jean Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles, directed by Gadi Roll. The play is a meeting of extremes, a melodrama of operatic proportions, with comical unlikely coincidences, yet at its core, an indictment of social conventions, and that bourgeois concept – the family, with its internecine conflict among those who profess to love. It’s a tight-rope act, balancing between telenovela and tragedy. In less capable hands, it may falter, under Gadi Roll’s direction – it soars. Les Parents Terribles is a powerful tragedy, brilliantly executed, that leaves the viewer breathless and reeling.
Roll is an astute investigator of the tension between convention and emotion, families veering out of control, obsession followed with fidelity to tragic conclusion, and the nuances of character and relationships, as evidenced in his direction of Iphigenia and The House of Bernarda Alba. Like them, Les Parents Terribles is marked by precision in every aspect of the production – set, costumes, music, lighting, and performance, and the way they complement one another. The “living – working – sleeping – having a nervous breakdown room” of Yvonne (Shiri Golan) confronts the viewer even before the play commences, offering ample time to observe the clothing strewn on the floor, the empty bottles, the confused assortment of chairs, and the messy bed. The overall atmosphere, enhanced by the dark gray cinder-block walls and institutional doors, is not one of home. Just one look makes it abundantly clear that this is an extravagantly dysfunctional household. The emergency exit sign above the door stage right (intimations of Sartre, a contemporary of Cocteau), with its symbolic running figure glowing green, conveys an urgent message: get out while you can. Would that it were so simple.
The play opens on a frantic scene, Michel (Tom Hagi), the cherished son, has been out all night, his mother is on the verge of collapse, while her sister Léo (Naomi Fromovich) attempts to inject some rational thinking into the situation. Yvonne is in a permanent state of déshabillé, but without any trace of allure. Her greasy, messy hair, voluminous robe, and rolled down gray socks give the unwelcome impression that she lives in that blue negligee, as, for the most part, she does, rarely venturing out. Neither does she devote herself to domestic endeavors, as her sister Léo complains, they live like “gypsies.” Dependent on insulin, Yvonne has invented herself as an ultra-sensitive, wildly emotional, invalid, with her son Michel at the center of her existence. Shiri Golan immerses herself entirely in this role, her restrained portrayal of Yvonne gives the character range and depth, allowing every nuance of emotion to be reflected in her aspect. Golan’s profound performance redeems Yvonne from becoming a poster-woman for pathetic, and renders her in all her intelligence and complexity. Although she may not win one’s admiration, one empathizes with her suffering.
It is a bizarre household, with Yvonne’s sister Léo, always around to put things in order. Once more, the visual information is accurate, and amusing; one of the ways this play works on the subconscious and the emotions. Léo is Yvonne’s opposite in every way – rational, decisive, and energetic, doing what must be done in a crisp, white blouse and black pencil skirt, hair pulled back in a severe bun. Naomi Fromovich gives an excellent portrayal of a character whose gleaming surfaces belie seething, and rather sinister depths. She is there to state the obvious, Michel did not come home and did not call, because he did not want to. Michel, after all, we soon learn, is 22 years old, an age when many young men no longer live with their parents, and those who do, are usually accustomed to coming and going as they please. Yvonne however, is more inclined to consider all the dire, life-threatening possibilities, and when Georges (Amir Krief) her husband, emerges from his study and turns on the lights, she indicates with a hiss that she prefers to stay in the dark. The prodigal son does eventually make his smiling appearance, and the reason for his absence is much worse than anyone (except Léo) might imagine: he’s in love.
Why is this so terrible? Well, for one thing, Madeleine (Avigail Harari) is an older woman, three years older than Michel, and for another, she is a bookbinder, very working class. Mostly, she’s a rival for Michel’s affections. Here, once more, Kinereth Kisch’s set speaks volumes with Madeleine’s apartment stylish and perky with bright yellow sofa and bowl chair, as does the costume by Jehudit Aharon. All in white from head to toe, Madeleine is the very image of innocence.
Much drama and improbable plot twists, ensue, and this writer is determined to avoid spoilers, while noting that knowing every detail of the plot does not detract from the formidable emotional impact or pleasure. In line with the genre, the audience knows more than the characters, resulting in many comic moments. Mourning Michel’s disastrous attachment, Yvonne declares “What a nightmare!” to which Georges dead-pans: “You’re telling me.”
Yvonne’s obsessive love for her son infantilizes him, his chronological age is 22, yet he has not achieved the landmarks associated with maturity. Moreover, he is deeply enmeshed in this infernal web, calling her his “beloved Sophie,” always desperate for her approval, and expressing physical affection beyond accepted norms. Michel’s youthful optimism and enthusiasm is bounded by his weakness and lack of experience, as Tom Hagi embodies with endearing amiability. Where, one might well ask, in all this is the father, Georges? He retreats regularly to his study, where he makes his calculations, and has fabricated his own fantasy to sooth his self-pitying soul. Georges is immaculately calm and severe, and while rather abhorrent in many ways, Krief endows him with a dignity and handsome bearing that explains the otherwise mysterious attraction he holds for the opposite sex.
Yet the insidious power of this performance is that as the viewer is drawn in by the extreme characters, improbable situations, and witty dialogue, there are sudden moments of recognition. Phrases that are familiar, and seem innocuous, suddenly take on a sinister aspect. Georges admonishes his son, “Your mother almost died of worry.” The mundane phrase, and others like it, heard many times over in countless homes, evoke an awareness of the repository of guilt, an eternal burden inflicted on children by their parents, by family members on one another, all in the name of love. Ultimately, self-love is the most powerful agent in this play, acting incognito as love for another.
Les Parents Terribles
A play by Jean Cocteau; Director: Gadi Roll; Translated by Eli Bijaoui; Set design: Kinereth Kisch; Costume design: Jehudit Aharon; Light design Felice Ross; Music: Eldad Lidor; Cast: Shiri Golan – Yvonne, Avigail Harari/Jade Daiches Weeks – Madeleine, Tom Hagi – Michel, Naomi Fromovich – Léo, Amir Krief – Georges.