Brandy Burre, Ellen Karas, and Michael Earle in Hilda
Brandy Burre, Ellen Karas, and Michael Earle in Hilda
In Hilda, which is being presented as part of the Act French festival, Marie Ndiaye has something to say about the social inequality that lies underneath the liberal veneer of the upper class. Unfortunately, the play is so outlandish that her criticisms hold little weight.

Mrs. Lemarchand (Ellen Karas) is a former "left-wing militant" turned bourgeois gentlewoman who's looking for her next housekeeper. As the play begins, she asks her handyman Frank (Michael Earle) if his wife Hilda will work for her, simply because she's never had a servant with such a beguiling name. She croons the word as a lover would and makes little effort to disguise her sexual longing for the Hilda of her imagination. The folksy Frank needs money so badly that he basically pimps out his wife, whom he loves, without getting her consent. Tragicomic doings ensue.

Hilda never actually appears onstage. She is an "unknowable other" (to borrow a phrase from such French thinkers as Rimbaud, Sartre, and Levinas) whom we can never truly understand but whose presence is strongly felt. This concept is rife with dramatic possibilities, as the audience is forced to imagine Hilda's class, ethnicity, motivations, and so on. We end up projecting qualities onto her based on the other characters that we see onstage, and we learn about ourselves through the judgments that we make. But for the concept to fully work, the other characters have to be credible, which is not the case here. Frank agrees to an obviously shady offer and then is surprised by the consequences. Later, Lemarchand finds a way to commit "legalized" kidnapping and slavery, in much the same way that Shylock demands a pound of flesh, by pure contrivance of the playwright. Eventually, the proceedings go over the top in a way that would make even John Waters cry "Enough!"

Carey Perloff's direction is strongest when it comes to creating memorable stage images and managing traffic. The actors, including Brandy Burre as Hilda's sister, do what they can with their underwitten roles. Erika Rundle's translation captures the humor and economy of the language that Ndiaye, the second French woman ever to be admitted to the Comédie Française, was capable of writing at her best. Like some other recent plays -- Omnium Gatherum and No Foreigners Beyond This Point spring to mind -- Hilda pretends to be a blistering critique of liberal self-congratulation but is instead a shining example of liberal self-congratulation. This is not a trend that needs encouragement.