Oh, that crazy Madwoman of Chaillot! Late in life she makes the shocking discovery that -- zut alors! -- there's wickedness in the world. So, being a take- charge type, she decides to do away with the evildoers.
In theory, French playwright Jean Giraudoux got away with this hyper-simplistic story by dubbing the protagonist "mad." But even if you make that allowance, and even if you relegate the plot to the realm of fables, this 1945 script still reeks of Hallmark sentimentality and a childish dependence on happily-ever-after-ism.
At Theatre Hopkins, where this French-roasted chestnut has opened the season, director Suzanne Pratt has recognized that the show needs a light touch. This initially manifests itself in the cartoony, black-and-white, Matisse-inspired scene painting by Tony Colavito.
There's also a buoyancy to some of the principal performances, particularly that of Anne Helms Irons as the title character, Countess Aurelia. Irons' Aurelia is two-thirds an endearing romantic and one-third a do-gooder club woman with bulldog determination.
Her antagonist -- and the play's chief villain -- is a prospector convinced there is oil under Paris and determined to dig up the city to find it. Stan Weiman portrays this money-grubbing opportunist as a tough businessman, but a broader sense of ruthlessness would offer a more effective contrast with Aurelia's dotty, but ultimately successful, scheming.
Her goal -- in her mind -- is nothing short of securing the future of mankind. To Countess Aurelia, it's an easier task than locating her feather boa, which disappeared nine years ago.
Clearly, we're dealing with fantasy here, and considerable whimsy is called for. Director Pratt's large cast meets this challenge with varying success. Among the portrayals that best convey that essential whimsy are those of Aurelia's fellow countesses -- especially Carolyn Stayer as the adorable Madwoman of Passy, devoted owner of an invisible dog; and Nona Porter as the girlish Madwoman of St. Sulpice, who travels with an imaginary coterie of acquaintances.
In addition, Donald Hart is spirited as the Ragpicker, a beggar whose eloquence shines when he's called on to take the part of the bad guys in Aurelia's kangaroo court. And, Molly Moores and Wayne Marlowe are charming as the play's young lovers.
Though Aurelia has lots of hard-working -- in some cases, destitute -- friends, it's always seemed regrettable that she herself is a well-off dilettante, with more than enough time on her hands for such diversions as the annihilation of evil. Watching the rich and high-minded do away with the rich and greedy takes some of the bite out of Giraudoux's little parable.
Perhaps a more balanced cast, a hint of irony and an abridged version of Maurice Valency's lengthy adaptation would have given the production more edge.
As it stands, a strong dose of Theatre Hopkins' complimentary coffee is probably the best way to counteract the high sugar content of "The Madwoman of Chaillot."
'The Madwoman of Chaillot'
Where: Theatre Hopkins, Merrick Barn, Johns Hopkins University
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:15 p.m. Sundays and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12. Through Nov. 19
Tickets: $10 and $12
Call: (410) 516-7159