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Tucson Weekly Silly Fun!

How to plays on Moliére's absurdities in a post-modern kind of way.

By Margaret Regan

APRIL 27, 1998:  A SEASON AGO David Ira Goldstein had the very good idea to transpose a Two Gentlemen of Verona from Renaissance Italy to 1920s Hollywood, smoothly merging Shakespeare's follies with moviemaking's absurdities.

With Scapin, a 1671 farce by the French master Moliére and Goldstein has once again pulled off a movie metaphor. It's not as far-reaching this time, but it's an immensely clever way to put on a play that's half commedia dell'arte, half Three Stooges. The stage for this last entry in the Arizona Theatre Company season is framed by the trappings of an old-fashioned movie theatre. Before the melodrama begins the audience can read the extravagant show-bizzy claims on the movie-screen curtain, announcing Moliére as the world's greatest playwright (debatable), who's authored The Imaginary Invalid (true) and Boogie Nights (definitely not true).

Seated to the right of the stage is keyboard player Roberta Carlson. Dressed like a French judge in a wig powdered an absurd pink, she's nevertheless a retread of the old-fashioned organist from the days of silent movies, and she bangs out a droll musical commentary throughout the play.

The lies on the curtain make for a fine send-off for a work that's rife with comic deception. Set in an unnamed Italian city, it's full of stock characters from the repertoire of the golden age of French comedy, which itself borrowed from an earlier Italian tradition. The title character, played by the astonishing Bob Sorenson, is a lovable scamp, a servant who's easily smarter than two masters and their two wayward sons put together. The ne'er-do-well young men have fallen in love in all the wrong places, without the consent of their penny-pinching fathers. Scapin's task is to make everything come out right for his bumbling betters, reconciling fathers and sons, saving inheritances and letting the sons love where their lust takes them.

Along the way to this foregone conclusion, there's much inspired silliness. Take the talking puppets on Scapin's knees, for instance, or the mechanical gendarme dolls propelling their puny selves along the streets. Quite possibly the best scene in the whole play occurs when Scapin enlists the aid of fellow servant Sylvestre (R. Hamilton Wright) to scare one of the dads, Argante (Jeff Steitzer) out of his plan to annul his son's marriage. Sylvestre is to play the bride's imaginary brother as a vengeful psychopath. Maniacally bounding around the stage in a faux rage, Wright metamorphoses into every tough guy in filmland from Bogey to Robert De Niro ("You talkin' to me?").

Clearly, these are not Moliére's lines: The play has been adapted by two contemporary playwrights, Bill Irwin and Mark O'Donnell. They've peppered it with a host of modern references without softening any of Moliére's sharp edges. Scapin is not a scathing satire, like Moliére's more famous Tartuffe, which attacks religious hypocrisy, but there's no escaping Scapin's unspoken critique of class privilege, or its impatience with human folly.

Still, the play is almost entirely ridiculous. Director Goldstein deftly plays on its absurdities in a post-modern kind of way. When a wordy explanation of past events takes place, for instance, a huge sign reading "Exposition" floats down from the rafters. When an unbelievable coincidence of identity is unveiled, the actors all hold up cards, announcing "What an unbelievable coincidence!" And there's a great deal of joking with the audience, with the actors deliberately reminding us of the artificiality of the theatre.

The set, by Drew Boughton, is a wonder, a funny-lovely Italian street whose dramatic foreshortening comes right out of Renaissance panting. Its many passageways and steps and second-floor turrets are a fine support for the play's relentless physical comedy. The 11-member ensemble cast is wholly up to the shenanigans that Moliére demands. Besides the energetic Sorenson, who as Scapin is in nearly every scene, there's Steitzer's fine, wizened Argante. Leslie Law's bawdy Nerine stands out among the women, whose parts are relatively minor. Making his debut at ATC is Warren Jackson, an engaging, and funny, UA grad student who uses his small body to large effect as one of the silly sons, Leander.

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