Curio Theatre’s THE MASSIVE TRAGEDY OF MADAME BOVARY is not your high school English class.
There’s still the basic plot: A doctor’s wife has affairs in order to find some meaning to life in a 19th century French village. Emma Bovary (Aetna Gallagher) is bored, flighty and selfish. And her husband Charles (Andrew Blasenak) is bumbling and doting yet sexually inattentive.
But this version, written by British theater company Peepolykus, is a sort of meta one: The actors frequently pause the action to explain to the audience why they’ve made certain creative choices — for instance, it’s shared in the beginning that in this version, Emma will not commit suicide — and in these moments after breaking the fourth wall they often refer to each other by their real first names. Gallagher, in particular, acts incensed that Emma’s struggles are so often presented simply — it’s not fair to the character, she argues, as Emma is complex and deserving of love regardless, as we all are.
It’s also absurd, and hilarious. Four actors play multiple roles, from the main characters (Emma, Charles, Emma’s lovers) to quirky villagers, which occasionally involves cross-dressing. There’s an extended magic show as the magician is seducing Emma, which all ends in an exaggerated, musical orgasm. There’s a certain rat extermination plot line, and some very silly French accents.
This MASSIVE TRAGEDY OF MADAME BOVARY is also very sad. It ends with a tender moment between Emma and Charles in which they both apologize for never giving the other what they needed when they still had time to do so. At this point, the audience has seen how life has done Emma in — not only because of her own poor choices — and Gallagher has made such a case that we see what Emma is worth.
As director John Bellomo states in his note in the playbill: “The comedy in this play helps to highlight the tragedy in the story.” All lives involved peaks and valleys, comedy and tragedy, and the amplification of one simultaneously amplifies the other.
[Curio Theatre Company, 4740 Baltimore Avenue] April 26–May 20, 2017; curiotheatre.org.