Fleas in Their Ears 

Georges Feydeau strikes home

Wednesday, Aug 15 2001
Photo by Gulu Montiero

Georges Feydeau’s spirit hangs over Los Angeles — for the time being, at least. That two stagings of his celebrated yet rarely produced French farce, A Flea in Her Ear, should have opened across town on the same night — taking each show’s producer by surprise — is exactly the kind of coincidence that punctuates Feydeau’s entire body of work. The version at Culver City’s Ivy Substation is put on by a group named, ironically enough, Two of a Kind Productions.

Feydeau took over from 19th-century Parisian vaudeville, writing most of his 39 comedies between 1881 and 1916, plays ostensibly about infidelity and jealousy among the wealthy bourgeoisie of France’s Third Republic. But Flea, like all farce, is really about the comic fallacy of logic. With diligent craft, Feydeau establishes a line of action from one strategically faulty premise, and then has us watch the relentless march of cause and effect, and of hypocrites and deceivers, like lemmings, up a cliff and over the edge.

Crazy Spaniard in Culver CityPhoto by Phil Rivera

The wrong people keep finding themselves face to face, at precisely the wrong moments, building ever new layers of misunderstanding and chaos. The play’s mechanics — and by extension, its philosophy — make a mockery of everyone, particularly those who presume they can control destiny.

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Flea concerns the ill-fated scheme of Madame Chandebise (Jennifer Buttell) to trap her loyal hubby, Victor (Scott Martin), in an act of adultery after his abruptly limp sexual performance provokes her mistrust. Madame Chandebise plots to have her friend, Lucienne Homenides (Amy Langer), plant a seductive letter inviting the Monsieur for a liaison at a disreputable hotel named Coq d’Or, or the Golden Cock (which probably suggests today much what it did in 1907, when the play premiered).

Her stupid idea is to show up herself at the scene of betrayal. Victor, however flattered by the letter, considers infidelity only for a flash before succumbing to cold feet and the arguments of his bachelor friend Tournel (a nimble, foppish turn by Marc Hart), who offers to go to the hotel in Victor’s place.

But Madame C. and Tournel already have a backstreet courtship going, and so now they’ve unwittingly scheduled a rendezvous at what is one step up from a whorehouse. Thus begins the little parade of hypocrites, dressed up in Andrew Otero’s lush costumes, who march across director Mario Di Gregorio’s ornate period set. (One of the visual jokes has Lucienne, while waiting for Madame C., sitting in a parlor by a fireplace, beneath a painting of a woman sitting in a parlor by a fireplace.)

You can almost predict that Madame C.’s perfumed letter, handwritten by Lucienne, will be discovered by Lucienne’s ragingly jealous husband, a Spaniard named Carlos Homenides (Vincent Giovanni), who, pistol waving, dashes across the stage shouting, “Puta! Puta!” (No, this isn’t a “character driven” enterprise.) Chandebise’s nephew, Camille (Kerr Seth Lordygan), lurches around, eyes boggling, exasperated from the stifled speech caused by his cleft palate, while trying to consummate his own affair with the maid (Michelle Villemaire), who happily cheats on her butler husband (Jamison Yang).

But the farce turns social when the Golden Cock’s idiot porter — gleefully and constantly kicked in the shins by the hotel proprietor, Feraillon (Gary Weinberg) — turns out to be the spitting image of Monsieur Chandebise. In fact, he’s played by the same actor, revealing Martin’s impressive versatility. This, of course, results in Chandebise, and the wealthy class he represents, being kicked in the shins as well. Not even his posh clothes can protect him from Feraillon’s lunatic sadism.

A number of surprise meetings come about mechanically via a revolving bed that, installed in the play’s hotel room for no discernible purpose, spins behind the wall with the push of a button, revealing the bed from next door. Indeed, the entire plot transpires from similarly mechanical motives, similarly without a sensible purpose, rendering that silly machine a metaphor for the workings of the world.

Director Di Gregorio has some politically incorrect fun by adding an ethnic cliché to Feydeau’s gallery of stereotypes from French society, casting the cuckolded butler as a Chinese immigrant who speaks in a barely intelligible Charlie Chan accent. (“He’s the chief medical officer of Boston Rife.”) This, with Camille’s speech impediment, points to Di Gregorio’s larger point, however rude and jocular, about the levels of incomprehension among the characters.

Di Gregorio juxtaposes the well-choreographed lunacy (accompanied by a calliope in Ellen Monocroussos’ sound design) against the frequent appearances of an old, droll doctor played by Howard DeWitt with wry detachment — a tone that provides the play with its overriding, slightly sardonic point of view.

This is a lovely, richly conceived production, slightly undone by John Mortimer’s British Isles translation. These fine actors just can’t get their American dialects around phrases like “Oh, what a bloody nuisance” and “Cheeky bugger.” And, of course, “He’s mad” has a different meaning on each side of the Atlantic.

No such problem over at Hollywood’s Stages Theater Center, where the farce is being performed in an original translation by Clara Bellar, Herb Mendelsohn and the cast. The most obvious differences are changes in some of the characters’ names, and a certain abbreviation and feminization of the play. The Golden Cock is re-christened the Pink Pussy. Where, in Mortimer’s translation, the Spaniard screams at Victor, “I’ll kill you like a dog!,” here, the line becomes “I’ll kill you like a chicken!”

This may or may not be intended to play off the image of the butler (Charles Fathy) strutting across the stage dressed mostly in black (like everyone else) and with a white mask, head bobbing, very henlike. Indeed, almost all of the actors take on conspicuous animal traits, and double between playing a primary character sans mask and a secondary character with one.

Brazilian director Gulu Monteiro has prepared this ensemble with weeks of intensive commedia workshops, and the results are evident in a fiery physicality — from profoundly invested actors and from striking visual poses in an otherwise Spartan production.

The theater’s outdoor amphitheater becomes the setting for the Chandebises’ parlor; in Act 2, when the action moves to the hotel, the audience moves with it, to the indoor theater; then, back outside for the bookending Act 3 — a whimsical use of site-specific theater.

Monteiro strips bare the era and its theatrical accouterments, such as parasols and lacy costumes, in favor of raw energy, posture and timing — as though moving the play from Feydeau’s France to some imagined land between 16th-century Naples and Jerzi Grotowski’s Poland. Not surprisingly, it becomes a different play en route. The comedy’s drier qualities take on an overarching mania. Though both versions are about caricature, Monteiro’s crazed-comedy hybrid, with its masks and animal personae, is more about identity, and less about the goofiness of logic itself. Yet so much of Feydeau involves the logistics of characters colliding that the shortcomings of Monteiro’s concept probably wouldn’t be so noticeable in any genre other than French farce. This is because Feydeau’s lunacy is partly one of scale — of the visual extravagance from all his ridiculous people and subplots. The effect is diminished when an ensemble of 14 is halved, with actors playing two roles. That means there’s half as many door slams, and, by the end of Act 2, slamming doors is what Feydeau is really all about.

A FLEA IN HER EAR | By GEORGES FEYDEAU Presented by TWO OF A KIND PRODUCTIONS at the IVY SUBSTATION, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City | Through September 8

A FLEA IN HER EAR | By GEORGES FEYDEAU Presented by STAGES THEATER CENTER, 1540 McCadden Place, Hollywood | Through September 16

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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