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Cousin Bette at Deaf West Theatre

by K. Primeau~

Antaeus Theatre Company continues its tradition of bringing audacious, relevant classical theatre to Los Angeles with their world-premiere production of Cousin Bette, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from the original text by Honore de Balzac. The “deliciously wicked” tale of vengeance and lust effectively straddles post-Napoleonic France and contemporary wit with seamless grace and ferocious bite. A play in three acts, Cousin Bette is a surefire hit for audiences hungry for theatre with depth and eloquently executed passion.

“I am the poor relation,” explains Bette, the clever spinster and title character of the piece. Her wealthy and well-connected relatives have made a habit of passing along their old, soiled clothing, force-feeding unpalatable leftovers, and confiding less-than wholesome family secrets to little resistance. But when spoiled niece, Horetense Hulot, becomes engaged to the artist Bette nursed back to health after a suicide attempt, the scale tips to reveal her passionate and vengeful side. Bette enlists the help of the beautiful Valerie Marneffe, and meticulously plots the downfall of the entire Hulot family. Afterall, she asserts, “I am not a spendthrift with my passions.”

Deftly transitioning between addressing the audience and intimate chamber scenes, Alicia Wollerton (doubling with Nike Doukas) leads the talented ensemble through engagements both romantic and financial. Amidst the Chopin score and beautifully versatile period set by Tom Buderwitz, a world of double-crossing, war economics, untimely death, and class consciousness is woven like the prop piece of lace- fifteen layers deep and spanning the entire proscenium.  The one wild card which Bette cannot manipulate is securing the love of her Count Steinbock, a fault which leads to more than one instance of maddening rage and momentary melodrama. Thankfully, such moments are brief, and swiftly uprooted by director (and Antaeus Artistic Director) Jeanie Hackett’s steady hand.

Hatcher, author of the acclaimed stage and film versions of Compleat Female Stage Beauty, has distilled Balzac’s classical text into yet another vivid and timely piece. While Bette’s struggle to gain financial superiority rings true of 1830’s peasant life, her quest for romantic dominance elicits post-3rd wave feminist construction. As she coaches Marneffe to exploit her sexuality amidst wealthy suitors, she swindles the family will and tends to her needlework. At once in charge and overwhelmed by her passions, her character holds the mirror to the ugliest, most greedy, and most painfully human aspects of ourselves. It is a gripping story, accented charmingly with sarcasm and well-delivered humor.

The program cites Balzac as saying, “Love is a game in which one always cheats.” But with such a highly-trained company and pitch-perfect production design, Antaeus proves love for new theatre is a game they have completely under control.

Cousin Bette is preformed is performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 4:00 pm through March 21st, 2010.