Elaine Kendall’s latest historical drama could hardly have a more sensational or fascinating subject. Mata Hari, a Dutch woman passing as Indian in order to create a persona for her exotic dancing, may or may not have been a German spy during World War I. Spy or not, Mata Hari was executed by firing squad, and Kendall’s intriguing investigation of her indicates that she was wrongfully accused.
The staged reading approach of the Theatrical Treats series did little to detract from the thoroughness of the production, which was conceived and directed by Meredith McMinn. The cast included Deborah Helm as Mata Hari; Ed Giron as George Ladoux, the head of French Intelligence and Mata Hari’s principal persecutor; Ken Gilbert as Major Arnold Kalle; and Brian Harwell as Pierre Bouchardon, the investigative magistrate. Nicholas Hoyle played the police officer, and Jerry Oshinsky was touching as Henri Marguerie, a former lover of Mata Hari.
The opening scene finds Mata Hari called unexpectedly to account by Ladoux, the head of Intelligence. She is a Dutch citizen living in Paris, and she has requested permission to travel to a resort in Vittel. Helm and Giron handled the sequence well, building tension as Mata Hari realizes that the stakes of her request have changed and deepened. There were passages of exposition early on that felt out of place in dialogue, but the aim of developing these characters rapidly was accomplished.
The unresolved sexual tension that follows Mata Hari everywhere gives way to anxiety as the French Intelligence officer enlists her as a double agent. Her first assignment takes place in Madrid, where she spends time with Gilbert’s character, the German Major Arnold Kalle. Their intimate dinner together provides a fleeting moment of fun, even as Mata Hari’s life is shadowed increasingly by danger.
The second act concerns the trial, at which Mata Hari was given no real opportunity to refute the charges brought against her. Helm created a vivid portrait of this woman who seemingly had little experience up to that point with situations she could not manipulate and control. Mata Hari’s dismay at the verdict travels outward through her features and echoes back through the audience, only to be redoubled by the post-trial revelations about the nature and status of her persecutors.