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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 31 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 35
Promising Last Leper needs some work
Arts & Entertainment
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Promising Last Leper needs some work

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

THE LAST LEPER OF CHARENTON
THE SCHOOLYARD
Through September 8


An original work debuting on the Ballard Underground stage by The Schoolyard (the same folks who ran The Open Circle), The Last Leper of Charenton is an earnest attempt to show how science can be corrupted by human nature, even if the humans involved try to keep their thoughts on the highest possible plane of endeavor.

This new play by Todd van der Ark is set around 1670, in the real, historic French compound named Charenton. At first a hospital that included a lepers' ward, Charenton changed hands and became an insane asylum - housing both the chronic mentally ill and those driven mad by late-stage syphilis. (In its later years, Charenton hosted the Marquis de Sade.) Van der Ark uses this time and place to illuminate how science and faith overlap and conflict.

The language he calls for is somewhat formal and helps to set the tone of the piece. Brother Etienne (Dustin Engstrom) runs the institution with the help of Sister Estelle (Kenna Kettrick). We see only three inmates: Brigitte, a depressed housewife who may have killed her husband (JenRenee Paulson); Bruno, a syphilitic (David Rollison); and Alain, a leper (Michael Harris).

Several of the production choices do not help the play or the audience. The lighting, for instance, is so dark as to lull patrons to sleep. We understand that it's intended to create a mood, but ultimately you want the play to be seen. Also, the music, while interesting - a mélange of modern, somewhat discordant melodies and sound effects intended to highlight or portend - often just seems to get in the way.

The rhythm of the play is, at times, extremely slow. Though the entire run time is under two hours, it still seems to lag. One guesses the intent is to slow down certain scenes to make them seem more important.

Harris and Kettrick are particularly effective in their roles - due in part to Harris's excellent leper makeup and to Kettrick's beautiful singing voice, which by design is so soft as to be almost inaudible. Harris's role is the most emotionally clear one and the easiest to connect with.

The plot focuses on what we know now is bogus science, purporting to cure madness with mysterious tinctures administered to the asylum's inhabitants without their consent. Brother Etienne seeks cures in a sincere attempt to help his wards, but the religious filter he can't help but apply to his work confuses him, to where he even labels Sister Estelle's singing as the work of the devil.

The script needs some sharpening and focus. In its present form the characters don't connect with the audience, and if we don't care about them, we won't want to untangle their motivations or empathize with their trapped circumstances. The ending and what it reveals is also unclear - it doesn't yet know what it wants to be. For more information, go to www.brownpapertickets.com/event/265936, or call 1-800-838-3006.

Discuss your opinions with sgncritic@gmail.com, or go to www.facebook.com/SeattleTheaterWriters.

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