Tartuffe and The Ugly One Explore Appearance Versus Reality
PHOTO BY KEVIN RIGGINTony Pasqualini, left, and Robert Joy in The Ugly One
German playwright Marius von Mayenburg's black comedy The Ugly One (translated by Maja Zade) has arrived at Ensemble Studio Theatre/L.A. (at Atwater Village Theatre) in Gates McFadden's ever-so-perky production, which works in marvelous juxtaposition to the play's bleak underpinnings. This is the play's West Coast premiere; it first appeared in the United States at New York's Soho Rep in 2012.
Before getting to the story, which is an allegory and literary descendant of both Eugene Ionesco's 1959 Rhinoceros and Bernard Pomerance's 1977 The Elephant Man, the production's rich elements include Hana S. Kim's portable wooden set pieces, which the actors cart on- and offstage with such ease, you'd think they were made of tinsel. These pieces depict everything from the various workstations of an engineering firm to a plastic surgeon's operating table. The cleverness of this very theatrical conceit is enhanced by Kim's ever-changing projections, by Pablo Santiago's mercurial lighting design and by Joseph "Sloe" Slawinski's sly sound design.
The larger point is that the entire stage is about the size of a walk-in closet, yet it contains without any claustrophobia the story of an ugly man who changes his face for professional reasons. This ease of presentation is what happens when staging and choreography meld.
A brilliant inventor, Lette (Robert Joy), has concocted a "dynamic" new engineering plug but gets shafted by his company when his boss, Scheffler (Tony Pasqualini), sends Lette's underling, Karlmann (Peter Larney), to a splashy convention in Colorado in order to present the new plug to the world. It simply hasn't occurred to Lette that his unspeakably ugly face would prevent him from representing the company in public. It never crossed his mind that his looks were that offputting.
This harsh truth is confirmed by his wife, Fanny (Eve Gordon), who insists that she loves him for his character, though she's unable to look at him directly in both eyes. (That's the Elephant Man part.) This realization lands him on the operating table of a plastic surgeon who, in a satirical quip by the author, has the same name as Lette's boss and is played by the same actor.
The action to this point unfolds rather like a cross between a fairy tale and a sitcom, in which the tension between the truth and Lette's realization of it gets hammered in through the force of repeated quips. It's sort of pleasant and sort of sluggish, through no fault of the actors, who are all about as nimble with the material and with McFadden's dynamic staging as can be imagined.
The problem for Lette is that his ideal face isn't actually his. Anybody can have Lette's dream face, and the surgeon is happy to clone it onto anybody willing to pay for it. The face starts showing up all over the place, which of course diminishes its value. And this is where the play gets really good, in a production that's well worth seeing.
The play isn't examining the line between appearance and character so much as between character and conformity, which is where Ionesco's Rhinoceros comes into play. Those pretty faces are really just thick hides belonging to a herd that marches in unison. So much for free will.
Ionesco was writing about the French lack of resistance to the Nazis. Mayenburg, being German, has extrapolated that idea to address the tyranny of our profit-obsessed culture (embodied by Scheffler), in which fashion passes for wisdom.
The classic of classics grappling with fakery, Molière's Tartuffe, launches classical rep company A Noise Within's spring repertory season, which is titled "Lost and Found." The play's actual protagonist, patriarch Orgon, loses his mind and then finds it again.
Richard Wilbur's translation of the well-known father-knows-least saga receives an opulent production by director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, with Angela Balogh Calin's lavish black, white and peachy costumes in perfect harmony with Frederica Nascimento's set. The visual spectacle is so seductive, it's hard to tell whether it's underscoring Molière's theme of artifice and authenticity or masking it behind a kind of Main Street parade in Disneyland.
Geoff Elliott's stone-brained Orgon sports cat's-eye glasses, like a character through the looking glass, and his whimsical density has both definition and appeal. But the production comes to life with the arrival of Freddy Douglas' Tartuffe. An Englishman with Paul Lynde cadences, he's just weird and wonderful. What is usually the character's blatant conniving is here presented with such somber earnestness that he makes Orgon appear less of a fool. It's really interesting that, even for a moment, Orgon's sanctimonious family could actually be mistaken in their condemnation of Tartuffe. Suddenly, if only for a moment, it's a drama rather than a comedy sketch.
Because we live in a culture where it's so hard to know what's authentic, where 95 percent of the information that passes our way is a ruse or a sales pitch, Tartuffe remains an important play, a comedy that deserves to be taken seriously. Oddly, the more seriously it's taken in production, the more somber its tones, the more powerful its reach.
Rodriguez-Elliott's production starts to embrace this challenge. It's a tentative embrace, but that's better than so many productions that just dismiss the endeavor as a farce.
THE UGLY ONE | By Marius von Mayerburg, translated by Maja Zade | Ensemble Studio Theatre/L.A. at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village | Through March 24 | ensemblestudiotheatrela.org
TARTUFFE | By Molière, translated by Richard Wilbur | Presented by A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena | Through May 24 | (626) 356-3100 | anoisewithin.org