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Cousin Bette

Antaeus, the little classical acting company that could, is developing into a well organized and disciplined group.  The company begins its first subscription season with a stunning doubly cast premiere of Balzac’s pot-boiler, Cousin Bette, rendered for the stage by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by Antaeus Creative Director, Jeanie Hackett. To see both casts perform, as I did on opening weekend, is to realize the promise of theatrical works as opposed to the insistence of competing media.

Cousin Bette was conceived by Balzac as an evocation of Parisian life after the fall the Napoleon.  His snapshot rendition of life in the capital city focuses on the Hulots, an aristocratic family whose treatment of its “poor relation,” Bette, is perfunctory at best.  Bette’s smoldering resentment is ignited when a young sculptor with whom she has fallen in love meets and proposes to her young cousin, the lively Hortense.   Bette devises a scheme to win his love by ruining her family and sets about accomplishing this deed with maniacal precision.  This being the height of melodrama of course, Bette cannot win in the end.  But the journey from start to finish, occupying 3 acts and as many hours, unfolds with mounting fascination.

Both casts provide valid interpretations of this ambitious saga with differences emerging from subtle shadings brought forth by each company member. Saturday night’s cast, for instance, focused on the realism of the piece, thus allowing mounting tension to give way to heightened emotional resonance.  Led by Nike Doukas as Bette, the rest of the cast rallied to her will.  As her partner in crime, Jen Dede portrayed the courtesan Valerie as a young innocent pressed into service by the conniving spinster.  Daniel Bess as Bette’s would-be lover, Steinbock, seems an innocent caught up in her intrigue as well.  John Prosky’s blustering Hector Hulot is played as an absurd fop, and Kellie Matteson’s Hortense appears as silly as she is meant to be. 

In contrast, Sunday’s cast, helmed by Alicia Wollerton as Bette, populates a kinder, gentler world.  The relationships shift ever so slightly as Dana Green’s Valerie becomes much more complicit in Bette’s intrigues; Henri Lubatti’s Steinbock is more grasping in his relationship to the beauteous Hortense (still Kellie Matteson); and Barry Creyton’s Hector is much more humorous from the start.  In fact, the focus for Sunday’s group of actors tends much more toward finding the humor of the piece, which, it turns out, is abundant.  Because Wollerton’s Bette is more retiring, her descent into delusional madness is all the more subtle and delusional.

Jeanie Hackett’s direction meticulously unifies the dual efforts of two casts.  In fact, she has plotted the performances with such exactitude that even the scene changes are choreographed and excellently rendered by the Antaeus Young Company.  Her direction is so seamless that in my view, the one misstep –- that of an artificially melodramatic visual climax–- is magnified.

Hackett’s technical team helps to bring Cousin Bette compellingly to life. Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz has solved the problem of 44 scenes with such realism that we forget we’re not seeing an entire room, garret or street.  The Empire period costumes by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg work well within the color palette.  Lighting by Leigh Allen is competent, however the yellow-tinged spotlight used for Bette’s monologues bothered me; it made the two women look sallow. Cricket S. Myers’ sound design, however, is masterful.  Utilizing Chopin’s compositions and excerpting out appropriate musical “stings” lends richness to the narrative and completes this unique experience.

Cousin Bette runs Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 4:00 p.m. through Sunday, March 26th at Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd.  North Hollywood 91601. For reservations phone (818) 506-1983 or online at www.antaeus.org.