"Heartaches of a Pussycat," an anthropomorphic abomination that came to the ANTA last evening, deserves to have a shoe thrown at it rather than words. It is something like having to sit through "The Nutcracker" without Tchaikovsky's score (though there is a brief dream dance), and it doesn't even boast a Christmas tree.
Argentine in origin, it has a cast of 12 known as the Group TSE and arriving here from Paris, London and other European engagements. All 12, including a "rabbit" guitarist and "dog" violist, are, with the exception of three female dancers in a second-act balletic scene, masked and costumed to resemble various animals. Inspired by a whimsical 19th Century French artist named Grandville, it makes use of a short story composed by Balzac to go with Grandville's album "Scenes From the Public and Private Lives of Animals." Balzac had his off days, too.
It is the story of Beauty, a white cat we see "born" in Ireland, reared in London society and wed to an elderly financier, a fat cat who keeps dozing off at inopportune moments. She is then wooed and won by a dashing Puss-in-Boots named Risque, only to see him knifed to death on the night of their planned elopement. Beauty goes on to become a kind of grande dame or top tabby.
Scampering back and forth in front of tack backdrops (with the exception of one modestly evocative rooftop setting), the various cats, dogs, mice, owls, peacocks and such relate a dull, doggedly (or cattily) attenuated story dully. For one thing, the masks (full headpieces), while admirable creations in themselves - in fact, they and the costumes are the only striking aspects of the evening - are rigid for the most part; and for another, all but one of the voices issuing from them are foreign (there's a single American actor in the troupe) and have learned the English dialogue phonetically.
Alfredo Rodriguez Arias, the company's artistic director, has staged the piece skillfully enough in broad vaudeville terms. A series of red plush wings and footlight shields attempt, like the tired backdrops, to evoke a 19th Century music-hall atmosphere, an intention I trust is also responsible for the rudimentary lighting scheme. In a program note, the producers thank Jerome Robbins "for his advice" in the American production. But, phonetically speaking, are day shure he diddint say "Kloze it!"
I'd tell you more about "Heartaches of a Pussycat," but I'd sooner forget the whole business, along with that good part of the audience that slinked off at intermission. Scratch! Claw! Phfftt!
Certainly the strangest play of the season, and probably the most original, opened at the ANTA Theater last night. It is called Heartaches of a Pussycat and it has a sense and sensibility all its own. Some theatergoers, I think, will love it, others, I suspect, may loathe it, but hardly anyone is going to be indifferent to this frontal attack upon what we believe theater to be about.
You see the actors are all animals - or rather, they are wearing the most complex animal masks. These remarkable anthropomorphic animals are inspired by the drawings of the 19th-century French illustrator J.J. Grandville, who in 1842 produced his most famous album, Scenes from the Public and Private Lives of Animals.
The present "spectacle," for the producers are at pains not to call it a play, has been based by Genevieve Serreau and James Lord on the story by Balzac originally written to accompany some of Grandville's bizarre yet utterly charming illustrations.
It has been staged by the Argentinian theater group TSA, and it has been highly successful in Paris, Edinburgh and London. In Europe it was played in French, this is the first time the troupe has dubbed it - as it were - into English.
To enjoy Heartaches, or even perhaps to understand it, it is essential to put aside most usual conceptions of theatrical function. The story concerns a white cat, Beauty, born in Ireland, brought up in England, where she marries a rich but old lion of a businessman, only to fall in love with a dashing French cat attached to the French embassy. This is doomed by a viciously lecherous Hussar officer - a fox, of course - who thwarted in his intentions to seduce Beauty, murders her lover.
Balzac meant the piece as a savage satire on the hypocrisy of the London society of his day - but now, especiallyin this nurserytale translation full of odd anachronisms and other infelicities - its literary merits can be dismissed as merely quaint.
But the style of the piece, its look, its visual imagery and period evocation is, for the right person, bewitching. Jerome Robbins has been "supervising the American production" whatever that means, and certainly it is an entertainment likely to appeal most to the dance-oriented audience, who should by no means miss it.
The performers sing and dance, even perform simple acrobatics, as well as act, and although obviously their acting is circumscribed by these huge animal masks which can scarcely change their expressions, it is amazing how a gesture of the body, or even the way the head is held, can express emotion and feeling.
The designs - Claudie Gastine did the scenery and Emilio Carcano the costumes - are by two disciples of the great European designer Lila de Nobili. It looks exquisite, particularly in a marvelous rooftop scene that rivals the Paris rooftops devised more than 30 years ago by Leonor Fini for Roland Petit's ballet Les Demoiselles de la Nuit, a work that also derived something from the anthropomorphic Grandville tradition.
But, of course, the real triumph comes with the masks, designed by Rostislav Doboujinsky, son of the Diaghilev designer, Mstislav Doboujinsky, who is clearly a genius. His masks are both perfectly animal and yet perfectly human. Sentimental, of course, in the way the painter Landseer could be regarded as sentimental, but also extraordinarily witty in the true style of Grandville.
The cast - what one can see of it - is delightful, and there is a lovely moment when, for the final curtain call the troupe turns its back to the audience, unmasks and turns. Voila! Our zoological fantasies are ended in a stroke like a fairytale transformation.
There's no way to arrange this, but the best way to see "Heartaches of a Pussycat," which opened last night at the ANTA, would be to catch a glimpse of the very beginning of each scene and then wile away the betweentimes in the lobby, with a book. "Heartaches of a Pussycat" is very strong on beginnings. In fact, in sequence after sequence it's love at first sight and tedium thereafter.
The evening's opening brings a quick gasp. Before an early Victorian frontdrop awash in spider webs and meticulously detailed flowers, a goodly part of the animal kingdom appears to do an introductory hop, skip and swing-your-partner. There are whiskered tomcats in frock coats, beribboned dachshunds in tea-party finery, birds with beaks you'd do well to shy away from. As they jig with some dignity, accompaniment is provided by a morose hound with a fiddle and a hare plucking on a guitar.
We dig in for an enchanted evening because the look of everything is so assured. I can't believe that anyone has ever designed masks - they're full, three-dimensional heads, really - more persuasive than those here provided by R. Doboujinsky. Early in the next scene, for instance, a kitten is born to an exceedingly pregnant, wistfully appealing feline. As the kitten, soon to be named Beauty, rises from the earth on which she has been quite unceremoniously dropped, we're forced to stop and catch our breath. And laugh, too.
For Beauty is extraordinarily innocent in her silken, gleamng fur (very white, so white she is promptly described as a snowdrop). And Beauty is a bit of a minx; there's no missing the come-hither coyness, the possible invitation to wickedness, in the rhythm with which she stretches to full height. The mask gives us simplicity and the actress behind the mask gives us sex. The contrast is felicitous, and promising. Promises, alas, can be as quickly broken as made.
Take a later passage. In the course of the fairy tale's narrative (adapted, if you can believe it, from a short story by Balzac), Beauty is placed in the hands of a duenna for social grooming. Having been taught not to dig her claws into the upholstery and not to relieve herself on the drawing-room rug, she is further forbidden to prowl the rooftops at night. She's to keep away from toms.
The curtain rises, shortly thereafter, on a rooftop at night that may make you sick with yearning for the storybook illustrations of your childhood. Up among the chimney pots, with the ghost of a cathedral in the background, the clawing and courting and yowling (singing) gradually assert themselves. The intricately painted detail, which seems to have been lacquered all over with a dark surface that's begun to flake, is stunning. Both the costumes and the backdrops have been "inspired" by the work of an early 19th-century French illustrator, one J. J. Grandville, and if there is indeed inspiration in the enterprise, it's his.
Unfortunately, once we've been transfixed by the striking initial images, there's nothing much more for us to attend to. Under the starless sky, for example, the worst does not happen to Beauty. Very little happens to any of the prowlers. There's a bit of preliminary scratching and spitting, there's a bit of follow-up flirting, there's a fragment of song, and that's that. The music throughout is bafflingly undeveloped. What seems to be a lively quadrille may put its best paw forward: It then crumples away, with fiddle, guitar or barrel-organ (played by a rat with a patch over one eye) whining down to an unemphatic finish.
Of course there are a few traditional folk tale events acted out, or talked out, along the way. Beauty is married off to a superannuated tom who spends all of his time snoring. Beauty is courted by a French diplomat (a younger tom), and lusted after by a British fox (in military brocade). Fox kills diplomat, and Beauty returns home to write her best-selling memoirs ("Heartaches of a Pussycat," naturally).
If this last item seems to have a trace of contemporary comment or of wit about it, you mustn't be misled. The original French text, credited to Geneviève Serreau, may possibly have had some charm or tartness to dress the dialogue: There is a single moment in which a suitor lapses into insinuating French, and it sounds better. But the English translation, apparently the work of James Lord, plods along like an overstuffed peacock. (There is an overstuffed peacock in the lineup, by the way, fanning himself with a hand-held spray of his own tail feathers.)
The text comes no closer to workable comedy than the diplomat's impassioned "Nine lives will hardly be enough to enjoy felicity with you." It more often settles for ripostes like "You push me too far," "I would gladly push you off a cliff." Irony, or any sort of mockery of human behavior, turns up just once. "Without good clothes we'd look like animals," a grande dame remarks, "we might even behave like them." Well, perhaps it turns up twice. There's a sudden, curious echo of "Sweeney Todd" in a line like "We live in a cruel, selfish world; that's why everybody eats everybody." Mainly, the chatter - like the aborted music - just meanders.
Strangely, even the beautiful masks - there is a wonderful owl, with eyes that seem to have irised open into pinwheels - carry a penalty with them. The animal mouths move very little, which means that the vocal work is somewhat muffled; we are always conscious of unprojected human voices speaking behind the great orange beaks and the primly pursed kittens' mouths. Add to this a variety of accents - the company originated in Argentina but has been based in Paris for a decade - and you'll find yourself listening at one remove.
The visiting group calls itself the TSE, and audiences have been heard trying to puzzle out the logo's meaning. Founder-director Alfredo Rodriguez Arias has helpfully explained that "If it stands for anything, it's T. S. Eliot." That seems to me pleasantly impertinent. Perhaps founder-director Arias ought to have had a finger in the script, not just in the pretty pictures.