Most attempts to keep Molière fresh and relevant tend to be either gimmicky and filled with pop culture references, or to be so academically correct that we barely recognize that this was originally just comic entertainment. This production, directed with wonderful vitality and confidence by Christopher Bayes, balances those two extremes perfectly, giving us a show that's a model of 17th Century Commedia del Arte style and technique, and as contemporary as the morning news. The addition of music, songs that constitute another manner of lazzi, don't really make it a musical, but simply add another device to its methods of pure delight. It's a charming, imaginative, utterly winning evening of classic theatre, accessible to anyone, as intelligent and informed as it is fun.
David V. Scully plays Scapin in a bowler and vest, with a street-smart attitude, and all the cunning he needs to wheedle money from two miserly fathers, so that young lovers can be united after all the usual complications. Mr. Scully is a perfect rogue, always just a step ahead of the game, especially when he's in deep trouble. This versatile and appealing actor uses his impressive array of tools to manage the stage, enlist the audience as another character, and maintain the momentum of the action.
The play begins with a classic pantomime by shadow puppets, projected on a huge, crude scrim drawn out of a trunk on the stage. It's the perfect statement of this show's aesthetic and immediately establishes both the style and the extent of the comedic exaggeration. Within this context of absurdly overdone characters and actions, Scapin seems the most human and most rational, to say nothing of the most modern. This puts him at a distinct disadvantage. It also allows the historical accuracy of the staging and acting techniques to blend effortlessly with the contemporary references (as similar jokes would have been current for Molière's audience), and creates period theatre that seems utterly fresh and original. The artful scenic design by Michael Sommers, lighting by Diane D. Fairchild and beautiful costumes by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward dress the physical production handsomely.
In addition to Mr. Scullly, the rest of the ensemble provides a rich variety of expert characterizations. They range from the featherweight Octave (Brian Weaver) and Hyacinte (Stephanie Timm) to the marvelous Geronte (David Silverman), with his ungainly body and untuned intellect, to Zirbinette, (Kimberly Hebert-Gregory) a gypsy girl with plenty of attitude (and a convincing voice), to the various servants and extras, each well crafted and skillfully performed.
The role of Argan, however, rises to another level entirely. Allen Gilmore totally animates this pantalone, the miser father, with his hooked nose and body curved like a question mark. He is all tics and twitters, every element of his posture, voice and body tuned to this constantly agitated man. It's a brilliant, astonishing performance that, for me, was definitive commedia. For example, when he learns how much Scapin's scheme will cost him, his tragic fall into the pits of damnation at this threat to his precious purse was an entire play in itself, albeit about 45 seconds long.
Not everything in this show is as brilliant (I can't imagine how it could be). The first part of the second act clearly could benefit from some tightening. The slapstick scene simply goes on too long. The following musical number, while well performed by Kimberly Hebert-Gregory, was also overly long. Still, by that time in the show I was completely hooked. And the brief sag is soon followed by more really funny stuff. This is a show where a petty squabble devolves into a literal henyard full of clucking chickens. Where any event is as likely to result in a wanton slapstick beating, or to break into a kickline for no particular reason at all. In short, anything is likely to happen, as long as it keeps the audience amused and moving us toward the end of the story, wherever it may be. I don't know when I've ever seen Molière that was better accomplished, or more filled with pure joy.
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