by Lillian Meredith · August 14, 2014
The Poisons is an interesting if plodding piece of historical drama, set in France at end of the 17th century. It functions a bit like a puzzle – how are the trials interspersed throughout the play connected with the main narrative of the rise and fall of King Louis XIV’s love affair with his mistress Madame de Montespan? How will the spiraling revelations in the Affair of the Poisons affect the powerful couple?
The Affair of the Poisons was one of the most sensational crimes in French history, a period from the mid-1660s to the end of the century when apparently everyone who could get their hands on a poison or a potion did so. There were accusations of witchcraft, black masses, abortions, drinking of blood, and much else, including within the King’s inner sanctum. A special tribunal was established to try the accused, and of 319 arrests, 36 were put to death.
This is exciting stuff, and the play certainly captures the mood of intrigue and secrecy. There is almost no sound design, which allows for a constant eerie silence to permeate the piece; when characters are discussed, they appear in the shadows, which is both creepy and helpful in keeping track of the many players; past and present weave effortlessly together, with differing accounts played over and over so the truth is buried beneath a sea of tales. It’s very effective.
Unfortunately, it’s also unnecessarily slow. For a play about a really fascinating scandal, the pace is surprisingly methodical. There are almost no changes in tempo – the actors speak with the same cadence, the same meaningful pauses – and the result is an unnecessarily drawn out piece that is actually pretty hard to follow. There are few climaxes, and those that do exist seem to explode from nowhere. The play could easily lose thirty minutes just from occasional changes in tempo. Even the numerous scene transitions– which are done in silence and with the same slow deliberation – could shave ten minutes off if more efficiently done.
There were a couple of moments of exciting connection and passion, moments that transcended the otherwise detached airy performance that typifies period plays. Joseph Dimuzio and Kimberly Dillon as the king and his paramour have a few sparkling scenes, especially as the relationship disintegrates. And Erin Capistrano as Madame de Maintenon is quietly excellent and connected throughout. The play itself, though occasionally indulgent, is good and interesting. Perhaps if playwright Richard Helfer had a director other than himself, the play could have lived up to the excitement and thrill of its subject.