There are many challenges in Ujima Company's revival of Friedrich Durrenmatt's 1956 tragic-comic, absurd/grotesque/satirical play "The Visit."
The Swiss playwright, influenced by Brecht and others, uses stylized writing, involving individual and choral repetitions, symbolism and foreshadowing. The comedy arises out of the ridiculous or shocking.
Ujima's production, which opened last week and runs through March 1, is directed by Philip Knoerzer. The leads, Lorna C. Hill and Peter Palmisano, and several members of the supporting cast have the strong acting presence of professionals. But others in the cast of 14 are not as strong.
The play is set in a ruined, European town called Gullen. "Gullen" apparently means "manure" or "excrement" in Swiss-German. The minimalist set, by Robert Ball and Hill, is all brown.
Claire Zachanassian, a former citizen who is now a billionaire, is paying a visit. Claire is played formidably by Hill, who also executive-produced and is the company's founder and artistic director.
As the play opens, town residents wait at the station, watching express trains pass. The effect of their dialogue may not have its intended power, as they call out touchstone town names, capitals and institutions. The effect is similar to, say, an A.R. Gurney piece translated into German with all the Buffalo references intact.
The citizenry is essentially a lead character, a chorus of thought and behavior. In this opening scene, it was a challenge to hear and understand what the characters were saying.
The town's VIPs -- the mayor (played by Susan Toomey), the priest (Brendan Williamson), the local college dean (Connie McEwen Caldwell) and the doctor (Diane M. Camaratta) -- try to figure out how to get money out of their visitor. The merchant Alfred Ill, played by Peter Palmisano with a nice mixture of guile and sincerity, is their means to do it. He was Claire's childhood sweetheart.
Desire for vengeance, couched as justice, drives Claire, though there is a sympathetic thread in Hill's portrayal. She left as a poor, pregnant girl; a billionaire married and widowed her. Now one of the richest and most feared women in the world, she has politicians, servants and bankers at her command.
She offers to save the town, but only upon the murder of Ill. At first, everyone collectively refuses. But, this whopper of a stimulus package -- "a billion" -- causes them to question their human values. Soon, the entire town convinces itself to kill Ill -- but not for the money. ("Not for the money!" they echo.)
The production moves reasonably, though two intermissions stretched the running time out to two and a half hours.
The topics addressed are obviously relevant, but the piece's power is diffused by several mysteries. More information about the play's setting and time frame would help. In addition, the plot and the original text give no indication that gender or race are addressed, yet the company has cast several originally male characters as female, and the cast is racially integrated. Is this simply a case of "people don't see race and gender"? Or is it to modernize the piece, to add another layer to the already surreal and complex themes? If the latter is true, and they have the liberty to update the play, placing it in a more familiar geography would deepen the piece's impact and relevance.
Review: Two stars (out of four)
Presented through March 1 by Ujima Company in Theaterloft, 545 Elmwood Ave. For more information, call 883-0380 or visit www.ujimatheatre.org.