Relationship drama reaches a new high in “The Visit.”
The 1956 play by Friedrich Durrenmatt tells the story of Claire Zachanassian, a wealthy woman who returns to her hometown in an unspecified country, promising to donate a billion marks to the financially struggling community on the condition that the townspeople murder her ex-boyfriend, Anton Schill. The production, featuring a student cast, will open Friday at the Freud Playhouse. Director Mary Jo DuPrey said the show comprises a mix of raw emotions and dark humor, which forced the cast to delicately balance comedy with the more serious elements of the plot.
Annalise Staudt, a graduate acting student playing Claire, said the show is a black comedy backed by ridiculous situations the characters find themselves in. Claire demands Anton is murdered for impregnating her out of wedlock, which led to her being ostracized from the town.
Staudt said the humor of the show depends on actors’ serious, straight-faced line delivery about a ludicrous murder orchestration. Brett Calo, a graduate acting student, plays Anton and said part of the humor arises from the ridiculously high stakes of the play as Anton’s life depends on the morality of a financially struggling town.
Calo said the director told the actors to deliver their lines with full belief in their characters’ motivations instead of attempting to be purposefully funny or relying on humorous inflections. The resulting comedy comes from the characters’ absurd actions, such as trying to outdo one another with their purchases at a shop. The audience members might recognize behaviors they exhibit themselves or have seen others exhibit, Calo said.
DuPrey said she enjoys plays featuring dark humor because she considers herself a dark person, despite her background in comedy. She chose the play for its humor, which originates from its recognition of the cynicism of human nature, she said. Calo said that Anton’s situation becomes so dark that the audience cannot help but laugh at his drastically unfortunate scenario because it is so over the top.
Covering a variety of acting techniques for vocal, physical and emotional exercises allowed the actors to prepare for rehearsal, DuPrey said. She used the first two weeks of rehearsals to conduct acting exercises, such as quickly transitioning between laughing and crying. In doing so, the actors learned how to go back and forth between extreme emotions.
To get into character, Staudt said she relied on a sense-memory technique that DuPrey introduced to the cast. The actors drew on their own memories to portray their characters’ emotions and create honest connections. To further embody her role, Staudt routinely listens to opera music before shows and said it is especially helpful for getting into the dramatic character of Claire.
Claire’s dramatic tendencies characterize her arrival. She enters the small town with an ostentatious entourage of two blind men, a fiance and a lawyer who is also her butler. Calo said during the rehearsal process, a cast member compared the scene to aliens stepping off a spaceship, creating a humorous juxtaposition between the two elements.
Claire’s arrival forces the townspeople to confront how they will act in high-stakes situations, such as financial strife. Calo said the moral dilemma acknowledges the fallacies in human nature, such as greed and desperation, while adding another comedic element to the play.
“People can convince themselves of morality, but how will they act in the highest stakes imaginable?” Calo said. “It says a lot about how truthful people are to themselves and how they can turn on each other.”