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Theatre in Review: The Collector (59E59)

Matt de Rogatis, Jillian Geurts. Photo: Michael Greenstein

If, a few years ago, you had told me that in 2016 I would be seeing a stage adaptation of John Fowles' The Collector, I would have stared in disbelief. The novel was a bestseller in 1962 -- it put Fowles on the literary map -- and was made into a well-regarded film by William Wyler, but we live in very different times, and the book's plot -- a young man kidnaps the woman he loves from afar, locking her in the basement of a remote farmhouse where he intends to keep her forever -- now seems like the stuff of genre fiction or perhaps the kind of film slated for release on the weekend closest to Halloween. Furthermore, there's something inherently distasteful about this lady-in-captivity situation: Some stories are timeless, but is The Collector one of them?

In any case, Mark Healy's adaptation makes for a very uneasy transition from book to stage. Frederick Clegg, a mousy young clerk who lives with his aunt and female cousin, has his life upended when he wins the grand prize in a lottery. He quits his job, ships the relatives off on a long cruise to Australia, buys a disused farmhouse, and abducts Miranda Grey, a young art student. His designs on her aren't really sexual; he simply wants to possess her, like the hundreds of butterflies in his collection. He keeps Miranda in a makeshift apartment in the basement, ignoring her pleas to be allowed a glimpse of sunshine or a breath of fresh air. He brings her food, clothing, books, and music, all to her specifications, but he refuses to let her out of his sight. And when challenged to defend this monstrous proposition, his answer is simple: He loves her. And if they were outside the basement, she would never notice him, would she?

It's an inherently dramatic situation, especially since Miranda is nobody's victim but rather a young woman of piercing intelligence and psychological savvy. In the game of cat and mouse that follows, Frederick often seems to be overmatched, but for the fact that he has the keys to Miranda's prison. Still, there's no getting around the fact that Healy's adaptation is reductive: Half of the novel is narrated by Frederick and half by Miranda, striking a strong contrast between her lively, curious, powerfully receptive nature and the terrifying emptiness inside him. Healy occasionally gives Miranda her say, but the narrative balance between them is thrown out of whack. He also severely curtails the passages in which Miranda recalls her relationship -- almost, but not quite, an affair -- with an older mentor who challenges her to rethink the assumptions of her suburban upbringing, a relationship that compares ironically to her cossetted, prison-like existence with Frederick. The novel also has an element of social criticism -- Frederick represents the English middle-classes at their worst -- repressed, resentful, philistine -- versus a new, youthful spirit embodied by Miranda.

Given this conflict between two ways of seeing the world, The Collector in novel form provides more in the way of gripping drama than it does as a play, which ends up being little more than a B thriller with a notably sour tang and a tragic ending that makes the entire enterprise into something of an ordeal for the audience. This is nothing against the hardworking cast of two. With his exceptional height, beard, and strange affect, Matt de Rogatis is probably miscast as Frederick, who should look like the kind of person nobody would notice. He also doesn't quite get at Frederick's feeling for Miranda, which verges on a kind of worship. Still, he is convincingly creepy, especially when trying to explain himself to the audience. Jillian Geurts brings a fierce intensity to Miranda that makes her a formidable antagonist to Frederick. There is a misguided attempt at updating the action -- the play was written in 1998 -- which results in Miranda, under stress, swearing like a stevedore. Such behavior should conflict with Frederick's prudish, idealized view of her, yet here he seems mildly amused by it. But this isn't Geurts' fault, and her unswerving commitment to the role keeps The Collector watchable for longer than one might expect. Overall, director Lisa Milinazzo's handling of the actors is one of the production's strengths.

Jessie Bonaventure's set places two rooms -- Miranda's basement cell and the upstairs dining room -- next to each other. To retain the illusion of two floors, this means the actors have to constantly leave the theatre by one door and re-enter through the other, a convention that becomes laborious. Steve Wolf's lighting creates a number of looks, including differently colored washes suggestive of each character's inner thoughts. The costumes, by Blair Wear, are appropriate to each character. Sean Hagerty's original music and clammy sound effects do much to maintain a tense atmosphere.

Even before The Collector turns into an unpleasantly sadistic exercise, one may well wonder what possessed anyone to turn it into a play. Does anyone really want to spend more than two hours watching a young woman suffering for no reason? -- David Barbour

(4 November 2016)

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