Outside the Tower Grove Abbey, home to Stray Dog Theatre, one side of the marquee identifies The Visit as a "dark comedy." The other side promises "a macabre tale," as if the play within is an extension of last month's Vincentennial events. And indeed, both at intermission and again after the play had ended, viewers were heard likening this bizarre theater experience to a film by Tim Burton, one of Vincent Price's most ardent champions. Ultimately though, The Visit need not be compared to anything or anyone. Now more than 50 years old — and not revived nearly enough — Friedrich Dürrenmatt's spooky parable remains uniquely powerful and provocative.
The action plays out in Gullen, "the most godforsaken hole between Venice and Stockholm." (In Switzerland, where Dürrenmatt lived, gullen translates into "sewage.") If the town itself is mythical, its problems are not. The economy is stagnant; a miasma of hopelessness pervades the despairing air. All this lethargy is shattered by the flamboyant arrival of the regal Claire Zachanassian (Julie Layton), the wealthiest woman in the world and, not incidentally, Gullen's most celebrated former citizen. Her homecoming, however, is anything but sentimental.
Thirty-eight years earlier, when Claire was a poor girl in love with Anton Schill (R. Travis Estes), she had given birth to a child out of wedlock. The town ostracized her; Anton abandoned her. To survive, she became a prostitute. But now she is back — and with a vengeance. ("The world made me into a whore. Now I make the world into a brothel.") Zachanassian is prepared to bestow a giant cash gift on the town — with one proviso. "I want the life of Anton Schill," Claire coolly clarifies. And so Act One comes to a jarring end.
Acts two and three spin out the inevitable. The townspeople's righteous (if hypocritical) indignation soon gives way to the seductive lure of greed. Even as Schill is assured by his neighbors that his life is safe, buying on credit becomes Gullen's preferred currency. But The Visit is more than merely a satire on greed. It also slashes at the very concept of democracy. Anton is disposed of through a purely democratic route: popular vote. What Dürrenmatt was asking in 1956, others continue to ask today: When does economic necessity corrupt and make a hoax of democracy? In addition to its blunt questions, The Visit's affinity for metaphor is consistently intriguing. (What is the meaning of Claire's pet panther, and why does the cat escape when it does?)
This current Stray Dog staging is, in the words of director Gary F. Bell, "freshly realized." In his playbill comments, Bell suggests that The Visit contains elements of Greek drama, Bible stories and fairy tales. The director has sought "to tell the story using a different visual language." Stray Dog runs the text through a gauntlet of theater styles and techniques. For instance, all the actors' eyes have been decorated with accentuating circles and lines. We're told that this artwork references "the amusingly grotesque Italian form of Commedia Dell'Arte." To me, everyone onstage looked like they had been drawn by New York Times theater caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. Did all these facial tattoos enhance my understanding of The Visit? No. Did they inhibit my enjoyment of the play? Surprisingly, no.
Puppets are also used, perhaps to signify that when you engage in this kind of reinvention, eventually everyone onstage becomes a puppet. Hence, there are no conventional performances here, no opportunities to feel a sense of pity or terror. The acting is mostly reduced to attitudes and poses. But if each of the three acts becomes progressively less involving, the play itself is never less than bizarre and original. The Visit remains a major work of world drama. Any opportunity to see it fully staged is a kind of event.