WASHINGTON, January 26, 2014 – Like the bawdy, satirical plays of Shakespeare contemporary Ben Jonson, the equally madcap comedies of French playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Molière have lost none of their savage but hilarious bite even today. Sadly, neither playwright gets as much attention in the U.S. as was once the case. But happily, Constellation Theatre Company has chosen to warm the freezing hearts and spirits of avid DC theatergoers with a wild and colorful English-language adaptation of Molière’s “Scapin,” now playing at the Source.
Originally entitled “Les Fourberies de Scapin” (roughly, “The Deceits of Scapin”), Molière’s satirical original charts the latest devious activities of loyal servant but compulsive con man Scapin (Michael Glenn) and his comical sidekick and fellow servant Sylvestre (Bradley Foster Smith). They concoct an elaborate scheme to extract a few extra paychecks from their wealthy masters, while at the same time carrying out a plot to help their masters’ sons Octave (Matthew McGee) and Leander (Manu Kumasi) thwart their fathers’ wishes by marrying Hyacinth (Megan Dominy) and Berbinette (Nora Achrati).
Given mistaken identities, hidden scandals, and uncertain parentages, things do shake out in the end, but not before nearly everyone is unveiled as a scoundrel on one level or another.
Molière’s comedies rely quite heavily on the stereotypical characters of the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition, most notable in “Scapin” for its pair of tyrannical but highly gullible old men Argante (Carlos Saldaña), Octave’s father, and Geronte (Ashley Ivey), Leander’s parental unit.
But another distinctive characteristic of Molière’s comedies is the constant presence of social and political satire in which the upper classes are proven again and again to be easily tricked and outwitted by servants and assorted riff-raff of all ages, a tendency that first attracted but eventually alienated the court of his great patron, King Louis XIV.
Rather than simply choosing to perform “Scapin” in translation from the original, Constellation decided instead to take on a relatively new adaptation of the play jointly created by Bill Irwin and Mark O’Donnell in 1995 for the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Reworked first for New York (1997) and again for San Francisco (2010), Irwin’s and O’Donnell’s update added music while breezily working in political and social satire geared to our own times, where, unfortunately, things have not much changed since “Scapin” first hit the boards in 1671.
The Irwin-O’Donnell “Scapin” delighted audiences in its earlier outings, and it’s likely to do the same here in DC. As in the original, the insane action is nonstop. The jokes and asides quickly get the audience in on the jokes. And the silly but catchy musical numbers seem a natural outgrowth of this bawdy yet oddly good-natured jape at the idiocy of contemporary society and its fixation on selfishness and greed.
The heart and soul of this play, of course, is its scheming central character, Scapin. Fortunately, Constellation made an excellent choice by casting the astoundingly energetic Michael Glenn in the title role. On stage throughout most of the festivities, Glenn is loose and funny in and of himself. He’s unquestionably the mighty engine that drives this production forward in high gear, impelled forward by his gambling heart, which is in turn leavened by an almost innocent sense of fun. Helen Hayes material? Could be…
Of course it helps when your goofball sidekick is equally adept at music, dance, slapstick comedy and timely ad-libs and one-liners. Happily, Bradley Foster Smith’s portrayal of Sylvestre fits the bill, alternately reminding us of Gomer Pyle, Barney Fyfe and any character played or sung by Paul Lynda. McGee and Smith together keep the comic pot boiling in this production.
The supporting cast also does a fine job filling in the rest of the comedic blanks. Carlos Saldaña and Ashley Ivey (Argante and Geronte) alternate between overbearing pomposity and blithering idiocy as the Masters of the Universe who are nonetheless hopelessly ensnared in the multi-level schemes of Scapin and their wayward sons, not to mention their own checkered pasts.
As Octave and Leander, Matthew McGee and Manu Kumasi also achieve near-perfection as Argante’s and Geronte’s essentially useless sons. Nonetheless, they’re also real enough that the audience pulls for their romantic success anyway which is quite a trick when you think about it.
The female love interests in this play—Hyacinth and Zerbinette—are, as was often the custom in Molière’s day, essentially clueless and ditzy and lacking, at least in some measure, in a certain percentage of gray matter. That said, Megan Dominy and Nora Achrati manage to add a romantic spark to the proceedings, with Achrati’s Zerbinette contributing a surprising amount of amoral deviltry herself.
But the real cynic in this play is the servant woman Nerine, portrayed to vampy and over-endowed perfection by Vanessa Bradchulis. Nerine has spent much of her life playing the field, but here is able to finally turn all the confusion and amorality to her own advantage.
Director Kathryn Chase Bryer somehow keeps the crazy action contained on the Source’s modestly sized stage area while still creating the sensation that the audience could be invaded any minute. Likewise the fight and light dance choreography, nicely guided by Matthew R. Wilson and Kelly King respectively.
The wildly colorful, cartoonish set was whimsically created by A.J. Guban whose work seems to have been inspired by any number of Disney, Warner Brothers, and Hanna-Barbera cartoon series. Likewise, Kendra Rai’s complement of circus clown costumes that looked back on commedia dell’arte while also seeming to embody the golden age of vaudeville.
Last, as they say, but not least, an elaborate, Molière-style deep bow and hat tip to the creativity of pianist/accompanist Travis Charles Ploeger. With an occasional turn as clown-character Georg, Ploeger either performs or improvises on this show’s musical score, throwing in an evening-long trivia contest’s worth of musical Broadway and film quotes, ranging from Darth Vader’s theme to…whatever… that will set music loving heads spinning, just trying to keep up. There should be a quiz after each performance.
Our only quibble with this seriously fun production is that it dragged a bit last weekend in its closing moments—ironically devoted to a classic, comic chase scene. The chase was in and of itself still more fun for lovers of slapstick and French farce. But it somehow seemed a bit tacked on.
But why quarrel too much about this? While Constellation’s “Scapin” update perhaps lacks a bit of the original’s bite, it is, as we’ve already suggested, a near-perfect antidote to the cabin-fever many of us have been forced to endure during our current, severe bout of global cooling.
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)
Constellation Theatre Company’s “Scapin” continues at the Source through February 16, 2014. The Source is located at 1835 14th St. NW near the corner of T St. Closest Metro Stop: U St./Cardozo. Note: On street parking can be a bit tight.
Tickets: $25-35, student rate $15.
For tickets and information: Call 202-204-7741, or visit http://www.ConstellationTheatre.org.