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The Plague

by Kilian Melloy
Friday May 25, 2018
The Plague

Never read Albert Camus' classic novel? Thought you might wait for the movie?

The novel has been adapted to the screen, in a 1992 film by Luis Puenzo, and starring none other then William Hurt and Robert Duvall. But before you rush out to rent the film, consider heading over to Boston Playwrights' Theatre, where a new stage adaptation by British novelist and playwright Neil Bartlett continues through May 27.

Bartlett has compressed and streamlined the novel, confining the narration to five characters (and the running time to just under an hour and a half). Dr. Rieux (Dayenne C. Byron Walters, in an effective bit of cross-gender casting) provides the anchoring narration, starting out with a clinic description of the first signs of Bubonic plague to appear in what we're informed by the program is "An Ordinary City." (In the novel it's the town of Oran, in Algeria.) The first victims are rats - scores and scores of them. Then the disease spreads to humans. The medical establishment isn't quite sure what to make of it (after all, Bubonic plague, they believe, has long since been eradicated from their part of the world), and the press doesn't seem to want to delve into it. The world carries on as ever... except that day by day, fatalities mount until the authorities are forced into the extreme action of quarantining the entire city.

This is hard for journalist Rambert (Danny Mourino), who is trapped in the city while his girlfriend waits for him. Hoping for a means of egress, Rambert turns to a a shady character called Cottard (Steve Auger), a man so corrupt that it's questionable whether he can flourish in ordinary times. But these are not ordinary times at all, and he thrives in the midst of desperation and near-chaos.

Also separated from his beloved is a teacher named Grand (Michael Rodriguez). With the world around him now descending into madness, uncertainty, and death, Grand finds a single task upon which to focus: Writing a letter to his fiancée. The words, however, won't come, because existence now simply defies ordinary language.

That's not barrier to Tarrou (Dawn Davis), a resident at a fine hotel who takes to noting down the things she sees and hears in the course of keeping her diary. An inadvertent but committed chronicler of the crisis, Tarrou moves through the city as though shielded by her reportage. But words don't insulate her from reality as they do Grand; it's Tarrou who proposes the idea of forming small teams of volunteers to go around helping out the sick and dying - teams that give purpose to those at loose ends.

This is a bare-bone production, and that's by design. This is, after all, a story about existential crisis; a fable about dread; a taxonomy of human psychology when confronted with the unspeakably not-ordinary, as it struggles to find or forge normalcy in deeply strange times. The novel is viewed as a metaphorical take on the Nazi occupation of France, and the resistance to it; naturally, director Daniel Boudreau tinges this North American premiere with resistance of another, more immediate stripe.

But this isn't any mere morality tale slipping us lessons about life under fascism. As Bartlett himself has noted, every generation has a "plague" with which to come to terms. Today it might be Trumpism, but well within living memory it was the AIDS epidemic, and you can sense the openly gay Bartlett allowing himself a pointed reference to a literal plague when he talks about "the surprise of the patient who tests positive."

Still, what a knowing chuckle went up when one character, asked if something she'd observed as normal, responded drily, "Well, 'normal,' you know? That's a tricky word these days."

"The Plague" continues through May 27 at Boston Playwrights' Theatre. For more information and tickets, please go to https://www.praxisstage.com/current-production/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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