There is more swishing than swashbuckling in the latest Constellation Theatre Company production of Scapin, but all is delivered with such juicy enthusiasm and at such daredevil speed that the whole proved a riotous good evening of fun.
To my mind, it’s not easy today to pull off Commedia dell’arte, the classic popular form of street theatre. Its roots lie in medieval Italy, and the scripts that survive are rough sketches of scenarios, comprised of snippets of dialogue and indications for lazzi, slapstick business. But its form, stock characters, and plots have been borrowed liberally from some of the best, including Shakespeare and, as in Scapin, from the great French playwright and actor, Molière.
In 1995, Bill Irwin, one of America’s most beloved clowns and comic stage actors, with colleague writer Mark O’Donnell updated the work and spiced it up with plenty of opportunities for broad physical comedy to match the verbal wit. With slamming current political asides, cultural barbs, and heavy dialects impersonating various Europeans, including sending zingers at everyone’s favorite scapegoat –the French – the show seems made for our fair city.
Irwin has kept the stock characters: the old avaricious fathers, the young lovers whose romances are temporarily foiled, and the wily manipulating servants, but has put them on speed with a chaser. Director Kathryn Chase Bryer rises to the challenge, whipping the performers to steeplechase at breakneck speed for the entire evening through the swinging stage doors, cramped Source Theatre entrances and exits, cartoonish disguises, silent film style chases, and the inevitable “improbable coincidences.”
The whole work receives an underscore treatment by pianist Travis Charles Ploeger. Ploeger is costumed and with an original Dali-esque make-up treatment, complete with curley-que moustaches, along with the other performers. As “George,” he takes his moments to clown and relate to the audience, and becomes an integral member of the cast. Most often he is found perched above the fray at a Liberace-white baby grand and dazzles us with his playing – shamelessly and over the top — in a stolen film-and-television name-that-tune medley. His genuine enthusiasm for the melee below him is infectious.
The rest of the ensemble is similarly both game and superb, with every single one of them carving out his or her own over-the-top silliness. The performance is led by Michael Glenn, who fills the Bill Irwin title role to perfection. Whether he’s talking his way out of lying and stealing to his master or dressed in drag as a matronly theatre “subscriber” with killer pocketbook and wig, he drives the plot, all the while liberally sprinkling the stage with the sweat of his endeavors.
His sidekick, Sylvestre, the servant next door, is played by Bradley Foster Smith and the man is a standout. With freckles sprinkled across his cheeks and big geeky black spectacles, Smith ties himself in physical knots of anxiety and quakes like a bowl of jello – well, that is until he finds his inner gangsta. Then something monstrous is released, and a hydra of personalities emerge, which would indicate multiple-personality disorder and the need for group therapy for one – if he weren’t so darn funny. He, like many in the cast, is wildly successful at addressing the audience, even having the daring-do to pull in a usually reviled critic or two.
Megan Dominy is paired with Matthew McGee as one set of lovers. McGee is the quintessential dorky suitor who moons so over his girl and delivers with such earnestness romantic hyperbole his lines, “I’ll love you forever… and more…and then some” that you just have to root for the guy. Dominy pulls off being both pouty and dumb with an inner honing device that assures us all she will get her man. No contest!
Manu Kumasi and Nora Achrati pair off as the other lovers. Kumasi makes such a striking figure on stage and poses so effectively as the self-adulating young stud, he demonstrates with every pose and line he is destined and well-matched with the ever scheming, ever laughing Zerbinetta.
The fathers are always the favorite comic villains in these scenarios — avaricious, controlling, and ever duped by the machinating servants. Ashley Ivey made a wonderful doddering Geronte, whose clown work both with his cane and his folding single-stick stool are highly entertaining. Carlos Saldaña plays the other papa, Argante, as a Castilian rogue with a little strut that just might have come down the plank of Pirates of the Carribean. Saldaña’s got the panache and machismo packaged with that extra pequeño verismo that you almost buy that this guy is the real deal.
Vanessa Bradchulis adds to the comedy, providing the most pulchritudinous parts.
A. J. Guban designed a set and lights combo that lit up the challenging Source space on 14th Street. He used pretty simple means to great effect– painted planks, planted on end, to create a sun-drench urban landscape and in front two hobbit-house sized homes of the two neighboring families. They were just large enough for angled doors and windows to be used for great stage business. Then of course there’s the aforementioned white piano so the three major set elements are on separate, stair-stepped platforms.
Costumes by Kendra Rai are eye-popping feats of plaids and mis-matched solids and patterns adorned with buttons and rick-rack. The whole effect is candy-store delicioso.
A couple more mentions for the choreography. Matthew R. Wilson handled the fights and Kelly King did the honors on the dance sequences and both just kept pulling out the stops on this show.
Everyone thundered in a mad gallop to the finish line, ending, as all comedies must, with bravado, and where everyone gets his girl – or boy.
This is that rare show in Washington, sophisticated and stylistically spot-on for theatrical aficionados yet appropriate and delightful for the whole family who might just be out for a night of fun.
Scapin . Adapted from Molière by Bill Irwin and Mark O’Donnell . Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer . Featuring Ashley Ivey, Nora Achrati, Vanessa Bradchulis, Megan Dominy, Michael Glenn, Manu Kumasi, Matthew McGee, Carlos Saldana, Bradley Foster Smith . Musical Composition and Accompaniment: Travis Charles Ploeger . Choreography: Kelly King . Fight Choreography: Matthew R. Wilson . Scenic and Lighting Design: A.J. Guban . Costume Design: Kendra Rai . Produced by Constellation Theatre Company . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.