Midday Ticks

noon-divide-playNoon Divide (Partage de Midi) by Paul Claudel
Storm Theater and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre

Noon Divide, an intense morality/passion play by French poet, dramatist, and diplomat Paul Claudel (1868-1955), is excellent serious theater. Like ancient Greek drama, it deals with what makes people tick, what drives them on, and what propels them to undo themselves. And also, like Greek drama, a great deal of the action that motivates the characters is offstage, and the audience observes how they live with (and adapt to) the actions that occur prior to the play’s start and between the acts.

The first act opens, at the turn of the old century, with its four characters on a ship headed for China. This was a time when China was exploited by Western powers and strong anti-colonial movements were roused. De Ciz (Brian J. Carter) is a speculator on his way to make what he hopes will be a financial killing. Ysé (Kate Chamuris) is his wife, a compulsive temptress. Amalric (Chris Kipiniak), is an unattached adventurer who, years before Ysé's marriage, had an affair with her and would like to resume it. Mesa (Peter Dobbins), a stodgy civil servant, is just initiating his affair with Ysé. The setup of Act I may sound merely like the scenario of a romantic French farce, but in fact it serves as a basis for the kind of introspection and self-examination found in tragedy. Act II takes place in a Hong Kong cemetery as De Ciz, ignoring the protestations of Ysé, is about to take off in a single-minded huff to the Philippines to make his mark, innocently (?) entrusting his wife to the care of Mesa. The third act is in an abandoned pagoda located in a rural Chinese village, with the deadly Boxer Rebellion literally at the door threatening the lives of all "occidentals"--including our characters.

To focus primarily on the plot would not do the play justice. The story is but a structure to allow the characters to experience and dwell on what is vitally important in life. It provides circumstances allowing them to look at the absolute problems of (and possible solutions to) the trials of the human condition.

The language of the play, translated from French, is poetical; characters often express themselves in extended speeches. The rhythm and cadences of the dialogue take some getting used to, but once the ear adjusts, they become involving and compelling. The skilled cast is fully up to the challenge, imbuing their lines with just enough naturalism to make it listenable and engaging. You know that no one normally speaks as they do, but the actors' sincerity and intensity encourage one to accept what lesser actors would deliver artificially.

The sparse set design and dramatic lighting suit the tone of the play, as well as the long thrust stage that allows the players' movement to break out of the close, almost claustrophobic dramatic atmosphere.

Noon Divide is expertly directed by Steven Logan Day and Peter Dobbins (who also portrays Mesa). The entire cast gives nuanced performances that in other hands could have been dense as lead or lapsed into histrionic cliché.

Those who have experienced their lives with some sense of transcendence, and who have come to accept that they will not live forever, will find Noon Divide a powerful evening of theater. Those who have yet to arrive at such a mindset have the opportunity to have their perspectives broadened. - Jay Reisberg

Noon Divide is at the Theater of the Church of Notre Dame, 405 W. 114th St., through November 20, 2010

jay-reisberg-photo

Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, assistant to the founder of New York's Love Street Theatre and bon vivant at large.

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