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Wink Wink Nudge Nudge

A modern send up of Molière offers plenty of laughs

James FitzGerald (center) cuts up with (from left) Matt Wilson and Peter Boyer.

By Andrea Appleton | Posted 7/14/2010


By Molière

Through Aug. 1 at the Evergreen Museum

Traditionalists, be sure to read the fine print. This summer's Baltimore Shakespeare Festival production of Molière's Scapin! is a modern adaptation, and is it ever. While the plot roughly mirrors the original 17th-century farce, and the set and costumes are generally period, the rest of the production is a jumble of anachronisms, as indebted to Saturday Night Live as Molière. Bullwinkle, Beyoncé, and Hannibal Lecter are all referenced, as are Baltimore's own Bertha's mussels.

But so long as you're not a stickler for convention, Scapin! is a fun ride. Mark O'Donnell, who co-wrote the script for the 2002 Broadway musical Hairspray, and famous clown Bill Irwin did the reworking, and this production features additions from director Michael Carleton as well.

The story--both as originally written and as adapted--is a tale of master and servant, featuring fictitious kidnappings, forbidden love, and mistaken identities. Two young men of high rank--Octave and Leander--fall in love, each with an impoverished young woman. Because the women are poor, the young men know that their fathers will not approve. Enter Scapin, servant to Geronte, Leander's father. Through elaborate deception, Scapin manages to procure a good deal of money for the young couples from Geronte and Argante, Octave's father. In the process, the cunning Scapin exacts revenge on his master and earns a wife for himself.

From the outset, the production has the cheeky self-awareness of a vaudeville performance. As the play opens, Octave is explaining the problem of his lover's poverty to Scapin. He goes on at length, providing the necessary background, until Scapin reaches down and lifts a board on the stage to reveal a sign to the audience. It reads EXPOSITION. The proverbial fourth wall is rarely in place during Scapin! Audience members are often directly addressed and at one point even surveyed. The actors run through the audience en route to the stage, and Scapin introduces the intermission like so: "When we come back, beautiful women, graphic violence." It's satire, so the technique works well, though at times it seems the actors are mocking the play itself as much as the exaggerated characters that inhabit it.

James FitzGerald as Scapin is most adroit at pulling off the near-constant stream of slapstick and wit. His expressive face and ability to boomerang from one characterization to another are strongly reminiscent of Jim Carrey, with a dash of Bob Hope's mischievous charm. In one hilarious scene, Scapin convinces Geronte to get into a sack, supposedly to hide from a gang of murderous thugs. Instead Scapin takes vengeance on his master, pretending to be a succession of bad guys from other countries. (Along the way, he lampoons our own country's recent tendency toward xenophobia. "Is he an Arab?" Geronte asks. "Worse, sir," replies Scapin. "A French intellectual.") In one moment, Scapin is pummeling the sack with a stick and yelling in an exaggerated French accent; in the next, he returns as a Spaniard, lisping in nonsensical Spanish--"Dónde está? Dígame! José Ferrer!"--and tapping his toes to a flamenco beat.

While FitzGerald fittingly steals the show, the rest of the cast is, for the most part, up to the play's frenetic pace and goofy plot twists. Mark Krawczyk, who plays Sylvestre--Argante's servant--gets a lot of laughs, particularly in a scene where he postures as a tough guy by reeling off intimidating lines from a string of films that includes Lord of the Rings and Taxi Driver. Argante himself (Matthew Wilson) is perhaps the production's weakest link, mostly because his altered voice sounds like Grandpa Simpson, an irksome choice that does not succeed in making him seem old.

The cartoonish exaggeration of the production's choreography adds to the levity. Characters often move in unison. In one scene, two servants each lift a leg high in the air and dash offstage a la the Road Runner. Such action is often accompanied by a riff of hot jazz, which emanates from the speakers intermittently throughout the play. That, too, revs up the action, but by the end those jangling beats grow a little tired. And if even the music is way post-17th century, why bother with velvet capes and flouncy gowns?

Scapin! is pretty damn funny about three-quarters of the time. Not bad odds, considering the sheer density of the jokes. At one point Scapin refers to a sword and scabbard as "Mr. Pointy in its holder thingy." Think that's funny? Get thee to the festival.

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