By Faith Oakes
This semester the University of Dallas is putting on an adaptation of Voltaire’s “Candide,” a satirical musical notable both for its biting humor and its controversial subjects. The play caused a stir on campus when it was announced that UD would be putting on a piece with anti-Catholic sentiments. Two students even declined participation, citing moral reasons. Yet the four lead cast members — Simon Lemaire, Brian Ahern, Mary Fougerousse and Ed Houser — said that they believe in the importance and beauty of this play, and that they feel that it is an opportunity for discussion. This version is a comedic operetta and will be a collaboration between the drama and music departments. “Candide” opens April 9 and runs until April 18.
Senior drama major Annie Zwerneman is playing a lady-in-waiting named Paquette who, though at first happy with her lot in life, is eventually victimized and falls into prostitution. Zwerneman said that she felt that the disagreement over the play arose out of confusion. She and many cast members said that they thought the debate surrounding the play was overblown.
“I would not really call it a controversy. I would call it a misunderstanding,” said Zwerneman. “Many people with reservations about ‘Candide’ have read versions of the play other than the one we are doing.”
Senior Mary Fougerousse portrays the leading lady, Cunegonde, whose terrible experiences ultimately destroy her beauty and character. Fougerousse said that she wants students to keep in mind that there is a difference between Voltaire’s book and Bernstein’s play.
“I think what we have to remember is that this is a separate work of art from Voltaire’s novel. The book was adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler in a new version by John Caird, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Richard Wilbur and Stephen Sondheim,” Fougerousse explained. “While it is based upon Voltaire’s satire, it is just as much a separate work in its own right, with the music lending a whole new level of meaning to the work and greatly elevating the text.”
Sophomore Ed Houser plays Doctor Pangloss, Candide’s tutor, who is continually advancing the idea that everything happens for the best — that Candide lives in the best of all possible worlds. Houser said that he understands students’ initial discomfort, but that he thinks it is important for students to trust UD, its faculty and its students to create a tasteful play.
“Yes, there are certain things from Voltaire that I wouldn’t be comfortable performing. The primary reason I still want to participate in ‘Candide’ is that I trust Stefan as a director,” said Houser.
Fougerousse agreed. “Everyone involved in the production of the show has given great thought to the issues surrounding the piece and will work to carefully execute them in a respectful manner,” she said.
The deeply philosophical nature of the play was also important to cast members. At a school where students must take philosophy classes on everything from Plato to Marx, cast members said they felt that this was a play that examined pressing metaphysical questions.
Senior Brian Ahern, who plays Voltaire as “Candide’s” narrator, explained the question at the heart of the play.
“The question the play really poses is ‘Why do bad things happen in the world?’ which is a classic philosophical question that has been posed and discussed by all number of philosophers and theologians,” he said. “The play doesn’t really provide an answer but does a lot to start the conversation.”
At its heart, “Candide” is about a young student trying to reconcile the lessons of his teacher with reality. It is an experience to which the producers and cast members said they felt that UD students could relate.
Junior Simon Lemaire, who plays Candide, the naïve boy who tries to reconcile the optimism of his tutor with the pessimism of the world, said the play is representative of the art of theater.
“Theater, according to Stefan, is about man’s need for grace,” Lemaire said. “I think this is exemplified by Candide, because he does his absolute best and it is still not enough.”
Zwerneman also stressed the inherently satirical nature of “Candide.”
“Even optimism is on the stage to be analyzed,” she said. “[Voltaire] sees so many problems in his time, and the way he draws attention to them is through satire.”
Zwerneman said that she sees comedy as a way to understand the world, both in Voltaire’s time and in the present.
“In a world that seems upside-down and falling apart at the same time, how can we fix everything?” Zwerneman asked. “It is as if the world is so crazy and terrible that there is no way you can live through it or look at it except through a lens of laughter.”
The cast members also found significance in “Candide’s” artistic value. All of the cast members were excited about the storytelling opportunities of this production, especially the collaboration between the drama and music departments.
“Not only is their collaboration unique, but the production is stylistically a big leap ahead in storytelling and postmodern theatricality,” Ahern said. “It’s going to be a very fun, creative production and combined with the music it is sure to be an entertaining crowd pleaser.”
“It is a great work of art, with warm and beautiful music that gets stuck in your head way too easily, and is a joy to sing,” Zwerneman said. “I cannot wait to work with the 20 other cast members and our two directors, Stefan Novinski and Dee Denasco, to make the story come alive in our own voices.”
It is clear that the cast members believe in the work they are doing. Both Zwerneman and Houser stated that the play is not at all about shocking the UD community.
“Our drama department has never done a Mainstage with the intention to shock,” Zwerneman said. “Drama is a beautiful art form, and I firmly stand by our drama department in that their vision is to bring honesty and to reveal the human person in these literary characters upon the stage.”