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preview imageOLD GORIOT
by Honoré de Balzac
Theatre at UBC and Western Gold Theatre in association with the PuSh International Festival of Performing Arts
Telus Studio, UBC
Jan. 16-26

James Fagan Tait’s wonderful stage adaptation of Old Goriot is so lively and funny, so richly furnished with sound and so happily acted, that its tragedy expires as quietly as the old man at its heart.  It is a sad story:  Goriot dies penniless, his generous heart broken by the neglect of his too dearly beloved daughters.  And Richard Newman’s performance in the title role is moving and sweet.  But the play feels warm and buoyant—unlike the mean poverty and cold greed it exposes.  Old Goriot carries its tragedy lightly. 

Goriot, a retired vermicelli maker, lives quietly among the impoverished boarders at the threadbare house of Madame Vauquer.  He devoted his former wealth to establishing his daughters in society, and lives only for their happiness.  One of Goriot’s dinner companions at the Maison Vauquer is Eugène de Rastignac, a student determined to turn himself into a fashionable young man about Paris—at (almost) any cost.  As Rastignac ascends to fashion he courts Goriot’s two daughters and wins the love of one, but he realizes finally—and perhaps not fully enough—money’s dreadful power to eat away at all but the truest of loves.  Caught up in their riches, the daughters alternately shun Goriot and milk him for his final pennies, and Rastignac alone bears witness to the old man’s lonely death.

The strong ensemble cast and musicians carry off slight pathos and sharp comedy with a colluding wink in the audience’s direction.  Luminous moments include Newman’s deathbed song and Becky Shrimpton’s solo as the wide-eyed Victorine.  Timing is generally excellent; Patti Allan, Gina Stockdale, and Mary Black, as mistress, cook, and resident of the Maison Vauquer, neatly punctuate their scenes.  The entire play moves swiftly, flowing straight from fashionable to impoverished Paris thanks to the cast’s light step and some efficient staging.  If Tait’s use of the Vauquer dinner table as stage for the high fashion scenes seems to collapse too entirely the boundary dividing Paris’s rich from its poor, there are payoffs.  It allows the bowed heads of the Vauquer lodgers, hunched over their dinners, to be visible in the dim light around the feet of the glowing rich socialites.  And it makes the wealthy world seem almost a dreamed-up invention of the Maison Vauquer’s wistful lowlifes.

Balzac’s novel is obsessed with materiality:  it finds poverty in the ugly, battered, used-up objects of Goriot’s world.  This play escapes such material heaviness.  Instead it uses light and sound (beautifully designed, respectively, by Robert Gardiner and composer Joelysa Pankanea) to conjure a material world on the stage.  Projected light suggests the texture of worn floorboards and old carpet.  Resonant sounds suggest the solid heaviness of invisible crockery being set out on Madame Vauquer’s table.  And the singing—well, for all the honest unromanticism of lyrics that claim the House of Love smell[s] like nothing I ever smelt before, the energetically-delivered songs  are heartlifting and subtly comic.  They deliver individual characters from base material life into dreamy hope, and they unite the lonely boarders of the Maison Vauquer in a spirited collective.

Sarah Banting