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Oh, Those Riotous Comedies

Love and (stories of) death: Gould and Newcomer as Pegeen Mike and Christy Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World
PHOTO BY CRAIG SCHWARTZ

Pierre Beaumarchais finished his five-act play, The Marriage of Figaro (the basis for Mozart's opera), in 1778, but it wasn't performed until 1784. This wasn't because the author was developing it in some Paris playwrights lab, nor was he trying to find investors — that wouldn't have been an issue after the success of Beaumarchais' prior play, The Barber of Seville. No, the delay was due to Figaro being banned for its unseemly depiction of the French aristocracy, reflecting the kind of debauchery that tapped into the growing ire that would lead to the French Revolution.

Some 140 years later, in 1927, Russian director Constantin Stanislavsky reset the play in the months leading up to that revolution in a production at the Moscow Art Theatre. Meanwhile, in 1907, crowds rioted during the opening performance of John Millington's Synge's The Playboy of the Western World at Dublin's Abbey Theatre. The problem there was twofold: A Sinn Féin contingent of nationalists believed that all Irish theater should be overtly political. Synge actually was a nationalist for a while, but his plays have different concerns; then there was the issue of unflattering references to the denizens of County Mayo, where the play is set: The men are the kind of drunken fellas who projectile-vomit at wakes, and hang dogs on clotheslines for the entertainment of watching them screech and wriggle.

Also, actresses depicting the women of the province appeared in their shifts, implying loose morals.

The sensitivity was over Irish stereotypes, and when the play premiered in New York four years later, it was met with a similar reception, including stink bombs being hurled at the stage.

All this gives one an almost gooey, nostalgic feeling for a time when theater was protested with such vitriol, notwithstanding the ignorance and circumscribed imaginations of the protesters.

Among the enduring aspects of each play is the eternal verity of how we leap to false conclusions based on misinformation. In The Marriage of Figaro, the gaffes are ruses and decoys set in motion by some of the characters with ulterior motives — keeping a lecherous Count at bay, putting somebody in debt in order to force him into marriage, etc.

In the larger scheme of things, this suggests that fools are the victims of the machinations of smarter people, and that this has less to do with God, or the gods, as with schemers of the human variety. There is some variation on this theme when the schemers get slightly lost inside their own puzzle, which implies a more universal folly, in which God is the trickster. Such is the foundation for French Farce, derived via Shakespeare from Roman comedy — a foundation director Frédérique Michel underscores by turning her production of Figaro at Santa Monica's City Garage (in a new translation by Michel and Charles Duncombe) into a kind of puppet show with human actors. The puppetry lies in the arch gestures, actors scampering into place through an almost sadistic mayhem of intricate choreography in order to land at a specific point on the stage, body positioned with balletic discipline, for the purpose of delivering one line, before scampering again for the next. When you have two characters exerting such energy for simple exchanges of information, you get what looks like style over substance. That's not really the case. The style is the substance: The idiocy of so abusing the limited energy we're given in one lifetime is a statement on the way we feel so obliged, if not honored, to be tethered to puppet strings. These characters think they and their self-interest are all so clever, while somebody on the other side of the footlights is laughing at their stupidity. Behind all this lies the unspoken cloud of a brewing revolution, suggesting that the abuses of the puppeteers will have expensive consequences. And that may not be just an 18th-century problem.

Figaro (Troy Dunn) and Suzanne (Janae Burris) are about to be wed. Figaro is valet to the Count (David E. Frank), while Suzanne is chambermaid to the Countess (Cynthia Mance). At play's start, Suzanne watches Figaro measuring the proportions for a bed that's to be installed in their new quarters — within earshot of the Count. A bit of a dolt, Figaro doesn't realize (until Suzanne fills him in) that the closeness of the quarters to their respective employers is actually in the service of the Count's lechery. And so begins a series of traps to ward off the indignity of the Count's attempted restoration of an old right called primae noctis, in which the master of the house is entitled to deflower a bride from a lower class before her wedding.

Following the plot's intricacies is like trying to follow the motions of moths around a lamp, though it does sort itself out, not unlike the ribbons and bows in Josephine Poisot's period costumes. And the new translation transfers the subtleties of French idiom very smoothly into English — with the added delight of actors occasionally lip-synching from excerpts of Mozart's opera.

The technique on display in Michel's production isn't yet pristine, but on opening night, it was close enough to make its point. The shenanigans unfold on Duncombe's production design of burgundy and blue, accented by two suspended chandeliers. The set's symmetry and elegance work in pleasing juxtaposition against the mayhem of interlopers hurling themselves out of windows, or pretending to. The solid ensemble works in tight conformity to the style: Frank's lecherous Count is a comic standout of barely concealed slime, offset by the grace of Mance's weary, dignified Countess. And Maria Christina Benthall offers vivacious delight as the libidinous niece of the gardener.

In The Playboy of the Western World, in a new production at A Noise Within, young drifter Christopher Mahon (Michael Newcomer) wanders into a rural, Irish public house, confessing that he has just murdered his father during a brawl between the pair, having knocked him on the head with a loy. The bar mistress, Pegeen Mike (fiery Lindsay Gould) initially goads this reluctant confession from the exhausted, witless fellow, but as it's met with reverence, and "Christy" becomes a local hero and object of desire among the village girls, he retells the story of the murder with growing extravagance and pride. This is all fine, until his father (director Geoff Elliott) shows up with a seething head wound, and Christy tries again to do the job correctly. In the eyes of the locals, he's now not only a liar but a murderer.

The "great gap between a gallant story and a dirty deed" is the crux of the tale, and its meandering morality is part of what incited its initial audience to riot.

Both plays are about lies, the difference being that Christy believes at all times he's the telling the truth. This quality, and the murkiness of what we take to be true, gives the story its ancient Greek foundations. At the start of Sophocles' Oedipus the King, Oedipus has no idea he's killed his father, and is just as cocky in his blindness. And though both Playboy and Figaro are comedies, Playboy contains underpinnings of tragedy stemming from Christy's earnestness and loneliness, and his betrayal by Pegeen Mike. And for all its perversity and farce, it contains some of the most fetching and lyrical love scenes in contemporary literature.

Elliot's staging is the inverse of Michel's — imbued with naturalistic detail (Soojin Lee's mud-stained, torn costumes, Stephen Gifford's rustic set with sheaths of hay dangling from the ceiling, streaks of rain sliding down the one window) and an acting style to match. Elliot's pacing is just right, gentle enough to catch the emotion and the beauty of the language yet brisk and smart enough to serve the comedy. Among the lovely performances are Jill Hill's Widow Quinn (who shares the dainty, word-wise qualities of Mance's Countess in Figaro); the eccentric and idiosyncratic William Dennis Hunt's Philly Cullen, and Apollo Dukakis' skeptical Michael James Flaherty. Elliot's biggest misstep is miscasting himself as the elder Mahon, when in his own production there are actors who could obviously capture the requisite anarchic lunacy. Elliott is of a classical mold, and imbues the rusty nail of a character with far too much decorum and elegance, in voice and manner.

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO | By PIERRE BEAUMARCHAIS, in a new translation by FRÉDÉRIQUE MICHEL AND CHARLES DUNCOMBE | CITY GARAGE, 1240 ½ Fourth St. (alley entrance), Santa Monica | Through May 30 | (310) 319-9939

THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD | By JOHN MILLINGTON SYNGE | A NOISE WITHIN, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale | Through May 22 | (818) 240-0910

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