Review: Curio ‘s ‘The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary’: 19th Century Love Story Gets A 21st Century Twist

Chase Byrd and Aetna Gallagher in Curio Theatre’s “The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary.” Photo by Rebecca Gudelunas.

By Ellen Wilson Dilks

“At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen.”

West Philly’s Curio Theatre Company closes out season 12 with a farcical look at Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in their intimate lower-level black box space. This madcap telling, entitled THE MASSIVE TRAGEDY OF MADAME BOVARY was created by a British ensemble known as “Peepolykus” (People Like Us). Curio produced their 3-man version of The Hound of The Baskervilles a few seasons back. The troupe has been compared to the likes of Monty Python and the Marx Brothers in their chaotic irreverence; they’ve produced fourteen shows since 1996, in addition to touring worldwide.

Now they’ve turned their skewed eye on Flaubert’s controversial 1856 debut novel—a seminal work of literary realism. Now considered one of the most influential literary works in history, Flaubert’s story of an adulterous wife was attacked as obscene when it was first serialized in La Revue de Paris. The resulting trial in January 1857 made the story notorious; however, when the author was acquitted in February of 1857, Madame Bovary became a bestseller and is studied in literature classes. Flaubert was trying to shed light on the repressiveness of society, especially towards women, but Emma Bovary’s affairs were what grabbed all the attention.

“A man, at least, is free…”

THE MASSIVE TRAGEDY OF MADAME BOVARY uses farce and slapstick physical comedy to tell this tragic story. In his program note, director John Bellomo states he wanted to explore how close the two really are, how so often in life we are laughing one minute and crying the next. He has done an excellent job, giving viewers a fast-paced evening that takes some surprising turns. Bellomo employs some lovely whimsical and inventive stagecraft throughout. The four actors switch characters on a dime, changing bits of costume on the run. (A special shout out to the Assistant Stage manager, Georgia Thwaites for keeping everything running like clockwork.)

As Emma Bovary, Aetna Gallagher does a great job of getting into the mindset of a 19th century woman, mining the comedy while still conveying the frustration of being smart but not allowed to express it. Three male actors—all new faces to me—fill in all of the other characters. Andrew Blasenak plays Charles Bovary and assorted others; he has a fine sense of the comedic, giving Charles an air of lovable nerd. Doug Greene is fun to watch as he changes hats, cloaks and accents in rapid succession. My favorite of the bunch is Chase Byrd, who just charms the pants off of the audience. He also shows a real facility for accents and physical comedy, and then surprises with a very nuanced performance as Rudolphe.

All four actors break the fourth wall throughout the story, doing so with great ease. The fun unfolds on Paul Kuhn’s relatively simple—yet surprisingly effective—stage set. It’s all black chalkboard with a series of doors and openings for the ensemble to flit in and out of as they change characters. To create locale, they simply draw on the chalkboard, creating such elements as an apple tree or a suitcase.  It is very clever stagecraft—although I did wonder why they didn’t stage the production in their main space to give themselves a little more room.

Robin Stamey provides a lovely lighting design and Connor Behm offers up a witty sound design to add to the fun. Costumes were provided by Ms. Gallagher and Ebeth Campbell created the various props so necessary to the silliness.

THE MASSIVE TRAGEDY OF MADAME BOVARY is a fun romp for a Spring night.

If You Go: Curio performs at the Calvary Center for Culture and Community, located at 4740 Baltimore Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19143.  The production runs now through May 20, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm. There will be a special Wednesday night performance on May 15. For information regarding tickets, directions, etc., visit www.curiotheatre.org or call the Box Office at 215-525-1350.