Moliere’s Scapin

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Ron Genauer, Sam Fife and Scott McQuiston. Photo by Gary Bolen

By Philip Pearce

MPC THEATRE COMPANY’S new updated version of Moliere’s Scapin uses the stock characters and set situations of 17th century French farce as a launching pad for horseplay and gags lifted from U.S. comedy traditions like vaudeville, the Keystone Cops or Abbot and Costello.

It’s fast, frantic and funny.

If you saw last year’s The Liar at Western Stage and/or the earlier PacRep’s Servant of Two Masters this is basically the same ludicrous love story. Two pairs of amiable but dim-witted young lovers are romantically thwarted by their even dimmer-witted parents in their respective burning desires to marry. It takes the wit and machinations of one or more household servants—always heaps smarter than anybody else on stage—to thwart the stupid oldsters and unite the frustrated couples.

Scapin is the wily and unprincipled domestic servant who can worm or sprint his way out of any conflict and figure out a way of solving all troubles at a moment’s notice. Local comic treasure D. Scott McQuiston makes this swaggering lackey relentlessly sneaky and unscrupulously dishonest, yet unfailingly lovable.  He’s deftly assisted by the versatile Sam Fife as fellow servant schemer Sylvestre, whose questionable resume as an amateur actor lands him in a succession of improvised roles, dialects and disguises aimed at lending a shaky verisimilitude to some of the wild schemes of alpha dog Scapin.

First victim of all the parental disapproval this time around is an amiable lout named Octave, played with boisterous assurance by Roland Shorter.  He has secretly married the lovely, bubble-headed but chronically impoverished Hyacinth (Kristi Reimers) when his family have betrothed him to an off-stage heiress.  Meanwhile, his next-door neighbor Leander (the slick and pseudo-suave Matthew J. Pavellas) has thrown class distinction to the winds and linked up with a hot-blooded gypsy girl named Zerbinette, played riotous and raunchy by Charlotte Bailey.

Everybody’s fate depends on Scapin. His machinations are aimed at Ron Genauer, wonderfully tetchy and tense as Octave’s worrywart father Geronte, and James Brady as Leander’s bellowing and bombastic parent Argante.

Act 1 is about how Scapin dupes the dumb dads into unwittingly solving Hyacinth’s cash flow problem and inadvertently betrothing Leander to Zerbinette. Act 2 is about the gradual discovery that everybody except the servants is related (“Brother!”…“Sister!”…“Daughter-in-law!”) to everybody else. In a mass happy ending, even the wily Scapin ends up engaged to a flirtatious maid-servant named Nerine, who has kept popping in, exuding comic histrionic coyness, in the person of the delightful Cindy Womack.

Susanne Burns has directed the adaptation by Bill Irwin and Mark O’Donnell for breakneck pace and sudden wonderful surprises. I was totally bewitched by two identically-clothed secret service men (John Radley and Justin Azevedo, one big and bulky, the other little and lithe) who keep halting the action to menace whoever is on stage with suspicious scowls, matching black suits, hats and sunglasses. The pair move with a synchronized robotic glide copied, if memory serves me, from two characters in the sublime 2004 French animated classic The Triplets of Belleville.

Almost as funny are a pair of female California infrastructure workers in orange jump suits (Lauren Hoelscher and Melissa Kamnikar) who bring in emergency traffic signs announcing events like “Exposition” when the back story dialogue threatens to drag and “Unbelievable Coincidence” when everyone starts turning into a relative of everybody else.  These two clumsy but resourceful girls set up traffic cones which get handed out as megaphones and keep popping up to supply missing hand props.

Dema Johnson is on hand to provide silent-movie style mood music and zippy chords and trills for fast action events like the hilarious closing chase sequence involving everybody in the company.

It all makes for a riotous and satisfying evening in the Morgan Stock Theater. Or it would have, were it not for a problem that has nothing to do with the direction or the acting. Scapin wasn’t totally and sublimely perfect, but it was damned good. Skill and discipline had gone into an opening night aimed at amusing us ticket holders out in the auditorium.  We didn’t give the cast much evidence of our amusement.

Every dramatic performance, especially comedy, be it Moliere or Neil Simon, is a kind of duet between the performer and the audience. Actors will tell you that a good and responsive audience can make or break a show.

There were times in the evening when actors broke the fourth wall and talked directly to us out there in the seats. We were asked once to vote about the next piece of the action. I didn’t see if anyone besides me raised their hand. At another point a character who had just done a pretty impressive piece of gag acting exited, then returned for a spoof acknowledgement of a round of applause obviously anticipated during the rehearsal process but consisting of maybe three or four of us clapping our hands near my fourth row seat.

Was this audience lethargy the familiar modern fruit of the theater of just me and my screen?  Are we programmed to performances that make no demands on us beyond plugging in the laptop or charging up the IPad?

Monterey needs to promote vibrant live theater. Audiences need to show up (Friday’s attendance was meager) and respond. They need to laugh. Or clap their hands.Or boo.Hey, even throw ripe vegetables.Friday night, some few brave souls, mostly young ones, laughed and clapped a bit even before the curtain call. But most of us pre-millennials seemed to spend the evening acting as if any kind of open reaction was bad form.

Problem is, reaction and interplay of feeling between seat and stage are what theater is about. Shows as good as Scapin deserve it. I hope it happens better between now and May 8th.