Imagine you're Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert's tragic heroine. You're trapped in a boring marriage in a small town. Your only escape is through romantic novels, love affairs, shopping, redecorating and the occasional ball. When your fantasies crumble like a dried wedding bouquet, "It's like the day after the ball every day." Then, what are your options?
"You/Emma," an imaginative adaptation of "Madame Bovary" written by Palo Alto native Paz Pardo in collaboration with actress Valerie Redd, riffs on 19th-century French romanticism, bringing it into the present with contemporary parallels. By masterfully delivering the message in the second person, Pardo and Redd invite audiences to see themselves in a classic tragedy tempered with comic relief.
The bovine Dr. Bovary is captured by a chorus of moos. Letters and unpaid bills cascade from overhead boxes. And Emma Bovary, believing she's about to elope with a no-good lover, is instead battered by a barrage of apricots that accompanies his farewell note. Meanwhile, video montages of Hollywood sex goddesses like Marilyn Monroe, each with their own disillusionments, show that love is not forever, despite Doris Day's wistful rendition of "When I Fall in Love." In case you're missing the point, the video of Judy Garland's carefree "I Don't Care" is particularly poignant.
Described by the authors as "a postmodern fever dream of Madame Bovary," in which a 19th-century woman collides with her future counterparts, "You/Emma" held its world premiere last year at New York's IRT Theatre. Pardo, who graduated from Castilleja High School and Stanford University, brings the play home for its Bay Area premiere at the Pear Theatre, where she has also performed. "You/Emma" is co-presented by BootStrap Theatre Foundation, where Pardo's mother, Sharmon Hilfinger, is founder and executive director. This well-crafted drama, which unfortunately has a short run, continues Thursday through Sunday, Dec. 15, at the Pear in Mountain View.
Redd, who won Best Solo Performance for "You/Emma" at New York's Innovative Theater Awards last year, carries the one-woman show from the moment she enters, wearing a T-shirt with the words "Don't Try to Make Me Smile." She could have brought the message home by sporting a khaki-colored jacket emblazoned with "I Really Don't Care. Do U?" but that would have been too obvious. Besides, it would have been tough to top a hooded jacket with a corset and hoopskirt when Redd transforms into Emma. Yet Redd as You/Emma manages to make the transitions seem almost effortless. Sometimes we shake our heads in disbelief at the character's naiveté, but we empathize.
"If this were now, you would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on medication," she says, accompanied by chuckles of recognition from the audience.
"You/Emma" is a natural fit for the intimate Pear Theatre, where Redd, director Devin Brain and other creators of the New York show reprise their roles. The setting, designed by Bruno-Pierre Houle, appears simple at first glance, with two large overhead boxes, two video screens, a headless mannequin and a floor covered with golden leaves. But video projections by Kate Eminger and lighting and stellar sound effects by Jessica Greenberg transform this one-woman show into a multimedia production, with clips from "Gone With the Wind" and other films as well as TV's "Project Runway." While we may laugh at the clips, we can't help but notice that romantic delusions are hardly dated. "If it were now," a phrase the character frequently utters, you might be "getting sexy in the back seat" instead of in a carriage or getting educated in a college instead of a convent, but some things don't change all that much.
Flaubert himself, played onscreen by Redd with a moustache, offers his two cents, delivering key passages from the novel as well as his letters. Unfortunately, perhaps because of uneven sound quality at the initial performance, Flaubert's words are sometimes muffled and the floppy moustache makes lipreading problematic.
Unlike Flaubert, the other supporting characters in this one-woman drama are largely voiceless. With costume designer Christina Renee Polhemus' simple accessories, the headless mannequin transforms into the men who pass through Emma's life. With a nondescript brown sweater, he becomes the dull Dr. Bovary. With a flamboyant vest, he's the roué Rodolphe, Emma's first lover who breaks her heart. Then a long brown scarf turns him into the studious Léon, who, like Rodolphe, also loses interest.
With her lovers gone and all possibilities of escape dissipating amid her mounting debts, Emma, like myriad tragic heroines -- Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler, Cleopatra -- sees no way out. The actress's tears become our tears, and we leave the theater seeing ourselves as Emma.
Ambitious and more complicated than it looks, "You/Emma" is entertaining as well as thought-provoking.
Freelance writer Janet Silver Ghent can be emailed at email@example.com.
Where: Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View.
When: Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. through Dec. 15.
Cost: $35, with senior and student discounts.
Info: Go to The Pear or phone 650-254-1148.