Villon: Theater Review

Miki Turner
An unusual misfire from one of Los Angeles’ most adventurous and reliably personal playwrights. 

Obie-winning playwright Murray Mednick takes a look at the Middle Ages life of notorious French poet Francois Villon.

Francois Villon, the original 15th century prototype of the outlaw artist, makes an apt subject for Murray Mednick, who has always been in deep touch with his inner murderer-poet. For much of the first half of the 20th century, Villon had been popularly regarded as a romantic and dashing figure, played in films by John Barrymore (The Beloved Rogue) and Ronald Colman (If I Were King) and on early television by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn. Rudolf Friml composed a hit operetta about him (The Vagabond King), and even that reprobate Ezra Pound (!) penned an opera. Mednick, with his outsider sensibility and ever-fit avant-garde chops, makes the perfect writer to reclaim Villon as a genius scumbag.

As played by Kevin Weisman, Mednick’s Villon swashes a squat figure, a charismatically ugly man whose sexual power derives from bile and rage, along with a lofty confidence in the power and pointlessness of his gifts. Beaten and abused by his impoverished mother, he is adopted as a young adolescent by a scholar-priest (Gray Palmer) whose name he assumes. Obtaining advanced degrees from the University of Paris, Villon nevertheless prefers the company of thieves and prostitutes, and flaunts his contempt for religion and society with aggressive violence, inebriated with words and booze. The essence of Villon’s existence is transgressive, a convulsive WTF philosophy consistent with the early punk movement, only more nihilistic and with more ornamental lyrics.

PHOTOS: 35 of 2014's Most Anticipated Movies

Mednick’s greatest strengths always have been his unwavering commitment to experimentation in language and form, a loving attention to inner rhythms not merely of character speech but of the diction of drama. Even when some of his more obscure work may be mysterious to the point of the opaque, the ear always can feel the pulse of originality. Here, the speeches brandish the patented in-the-face Mednick aggression yet lack the building tension he usually can muster deftly even with muted strokes. He spends much of the show enamored of Pirandellian pirouettes, almost always in declamatory direct address, and the cumulative effect is overly repetitious and underdeveloped.

Villon is credited with inventing a number of verse forms, one of which, the villanelle, is an intricate and highly formalized rhyme and metrical scheme, and there is some sense that Mednick may be organizing the beats of his recurring themes in some deliberate, ritualized manner. It doesn’t lend them gravity, though, only an accumulating ponderousness.

Nevertheless, Mednick as a director remains his best interpreter. The world onstage never strays from his singular vision, and he excels at integrating his actors into his imaginative universe. Peggy Ann Blow, so memorable in Mednick’s octet The Gary Plays, makes an indelibly Brechtian impression as a slippery mother/whore figure, while the always welcome Christopher Rivas (Helen, Songs of Bilitis, Camino Real) incarnates such a magnetic comic nemesis that one wishes his role had been more extensively deployed.

Perhaps in a more concentrated form, Villon might make a more potent piece. Meanwhile, the author of Fedunn, Joe & Betty, 16 Variations, The Deer Kill, Mrs. Feuerstein and the inimitable long-running Coyote Cycle at the inestimably influential Padua Hills Playwrights Festival may be afforded carte-blanche the privilege of true ambition, which is to fail well in pursuit of the new and better.

Venue: The Odyssey Theatre, West Los Angeles (through March 23)

Cast: Kevin Weisman, Peggy Ann Blow, Alana Dietze, Gray Palmer, Christopher Rivas, Troy Emmet Dunn, Geoffrey Dwyer, Carl J. Johnson

Director & Writer: Murray Mednick

Scenic Design: Keith Mitchell

Lighting Design: Matt Richter (with Christina Robinson)

Sound Design: John Zalewski

Costume Design: Adriana Lambarri

Producer: Laura Hill

Executive Producer: Guy Zimmerman

A Padua Playwrights production