"The Visit" is about greed and the rationalization

Published: Friday, November 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 31, 2002 at 11:34 p.m.
'The Visit," Friedrich Durrenmatt's black comedy dealing with greed and justice, seldom is performed on contemporary stages. The UF Department of Theatre and Dance remedies its absence with a stylish production at the Constans Theatre of the Swiss author's work. As directed by Ralf Remshardt, it is stylized, precise, and filled with interesting stage effects that divert the viewer from the play's simple theme.
"The Visit" is about greed and the rationalization of immoral behavior to achieve wealth. The play takes place in the fictional European town of Guellen (A program note translates "Guellen" from the Swiss-German to the English "manure.") where the townspeople live in poverty. Their only hope of salvation lies with the visit of a former townswoman, Claire Zachanassian, a billionairess who, as a girl, was vilified by her fellow citizens and sent away to become a prostitute. Subsequently, she married well, not once, not twice, but seven times. (In the course of the play, she moves on to husbands Nos. eight and nine.)
Claire will save the town with her billions but only under one condition. Alfred Ill, the lover who abandoned her when she was a girl and who now is a respectable grocer, must pay for the injustice he did her. Claire will give the town her millions if the townsfolk will kill Ill.
In "The Visit," all the characters - the mayor, the professor, the doctor, the reverend - are comical caricatures. Claire, the billionairess, is a cartoon character surrounded by a retinue of dwarfs, eunuchs, muscle-bound servants, and husbands who are equally cartoonish. The humor of the play appeals to our sense of the outrageous. Nothing and no one is real, which makes it difficult to feel sympathy, horror or shock for the town's moral dilemma.
The only character of substance in "The Visit" is Alfred Ill, the ordinary grocer, who wronged Claire when they were young lovers. He alone understands the irresistible allure of money. He knows that despite the townspeople's protestations of loyalty, he stands no chance.
If Ill recognizes the fate that awaits him early on, so do we. The gradual disintegration of the town's moral fiber is altogether predictable and tedious to watch over the play's three hours' running time.
Despite Durrenmatt's introduction of bizarre characters (Claire's eunuchs and silly husbands), despite a brilliant UF production with its grand set by Joshua Morris and its ingenious stage effects, despite the folksy oompa-pa of waltzes played by an unseen orchestra, and despite the brilliant acting by a letter-perfect cast, "The Visit" tends to be tedious. Fine acting saves the production.
Notable in the excellent cast are Jamie Hutteman as Claire, the eccentric, imperious billionairess. (Tracy M. Ward designed the gorgeous costumes she wears for each eye-popping entrance.) Chris Matsos as Ill, her one-time lover, plays the role straight and as such, is the only sympathetic character in the play. Matsos gives Ill a human dimension in direct contrast to the play's other cartoon characters.
Tom Lepke is effective as a bombastic mayor, James Webb makes a garrulous schoolmaster. William Irwin is properly pedantic as the town's reverend. Kirt Taylor plays the spit-and-polish policeman. Jon Popeil is amusing as Claire's seventh and eighth husbands. In fact, all the actors in this 30-member cast do fine ensemble work.
In the end, however, "The Visit" falls flat as its gloomy denouement is foreseeable from the start and the events that follow unravel like a slowly rolling ball of twine. Predictable and not very interesting.

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