Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2008

Last year, when Shakespeare & Company opened with a production of Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing, many of my colleagues proclaimed it a “laugh riot.” I didn’t, because it wasn’t. It was certainly good fun, but it was not hilarious.

But this year’s season opener, The Ladies Man, is a bona fide Laugh Riot. You start laughing as soon as the lights go down and you are still laughing when they come back up after the curtain call. This production, wittily directed by Kevin G. Coleman, is fall down, wet your pants, laugh ‘til your sides hurt funny.

Basically, what Shakespeare & Company has done is bring the broad, clowning mayhem that they have presented so successfully for free on the Rose Footprint stage these past few summers indoors, charged admission, and spiced things up with plenty of sexy silliness. Coleman manages to contort his eight flexible actors into more ludicrously lewd entanglements than you would have thought humanly possible. Surely the Kama Sutra was consulted along the way.

But for all of its bawdiness you can still take the kids because this is just such broad slapstick lunacy that the “adult content” (there is no nudity or rough language, just plenty of innuendo) will go straight over their heads and they will laugh at what will appear to them to be Looney Tunes live on stage. And things happen so fast that before they have a chance to ask, “Daddy, what were those three people doing with that tape measure?” they will be distracted by the next gag.

The energy generated by this cast is tremendous, and my one thought upon leaving the theatre after the May 31 opening night was “They’re going to keep doing this for the next three months?!?” But these are all such consummate pros that I am sure they will be just as wacky and wild on the August 31 closing night as they were when I saw them.

This play is “freely adapted and translated” from Georges Feydeau’s 1889 farce The Ladies Dressmaker (Tailleur pour dames) by Charles Morey, with a dollop of Feydeau’s most produced romp farce A Flea in Her Ear* (Une puce à l'oreille 1907) thrown in for good measure. Free and loose would be the operative words for both this translation/adaptation and the hilarity on stage. Feydeau purists (are there any?) may swoon, but everyone else will be too busy laughing.

The plot. Well, this is a farce so the plot is both crucial (to the characters on stage) and of no consequence at all (to the audience.) Morey selected Tailleur pour dames as his base because its protagonist, the middle-aged Dr. Hercule Molineaux (Jonathan Croy), is innocent, rather than guilty of all the dalliances of which he is suspected or accused. For rather charming reasons, he cannot do his marital duty by his much-younger wife Yvonne (Julie Webster) and has insisted on separate bedrooms out of general embarrassment. But one night, after barely escaping the clutches of a designing woman, Mme. Suzanne Aubin (Elizabeth Aspenlieder), and her enormous Prussian husband, Gustav (Walton Wilson), Molineaux forgets his keys and is forced to spend the night outside on a park bench in the pouring rain.

This nocturnal absence convinces Yvonne he really IS cheating on her, and she summons her Mama, Madame Aigreville (Annette Miller) to straighten him out.

Into this mix are thrown a lisping and persistent patient, Bassinet (Michael F. Toomey), and the requisite officious valet, Etienne (Dave Demke), and saucy maid, Marie (Caley Milliken.)

I cannot think of one quibble to make about anyone in the cast. They are perfection. Aspenlieder, whose character is finally referred to not by her name but simply as “the vile trollop” is a whirlwind of frustrated sexual frenzy. Coleman and the actors have designed a method of generating the maximum “thud” every time Aspenlieder flings herself bodily on to Croy, which is quite frequently. Her Suzanne is a woman of vast unrequited lust and terrifying gymnastic ability.

Croy is an excellent harried straight man for her, for Toomey ridiculously funny Bassinet, Wilson’s enormous and loud Gustav, and for Miller’s formidable (pronounce that word the French way, it sounds so much better) Medusa, er, Madame Aigreville.

It is Molineaux who refers to his mother-in-law as Medusa, the famous snake-haired gorgon of Greek mythology. This is not only funny when the word is lisped by Toomey, but also allows costume designer Govane Lohbauer a terrific sight gag with Miller’s enormous chapeau. Dramatic lighting by Less Dickert and crashing chords a la Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera (which is set in the self-same Belle Epoch of French history) heighten the silliness of each of Miller’s entrances and exits.

Miller has said that farce must be played very earnestly, and indeed her Madame Aigreville is ram-rod straight and strictly disciplined in all her dealings. She sees nothing funny about her son-in-law, his predicament, or her own antics while being fitted for a riding habit at a dressmaker’s shop that, unbeknownst to her, is a front for a brothel.

Toomey, a trained clown, is so very, very funny that he barely needs to say his lines to get a laugh. With his bushy red eyebrows pushed down in a perpetual state of puzzlement over his doctor’s dealings, Toomey’s Bassinet is the completely innocent catalyst of much of the show’s hilarity.

Demke, in a much smaller role, is also hysterical, especially in his physical comedy in the second act. Webster and Milliken aren’t called on to do much except look pretty, and, in Webster’s case, pout, but they do it well. At a few especially frenetic moments the entire female cast breaks into a vigorous can-can – a dance that is not for the faint of heart or weak of wind!

Wilson is a veritable schnauzer of a wronged-husband, endlessly determined to discover his wife in “fragrant delight” which is not too difficult considering that she finds the element of danger heightens her pleasure so she brings him along on all her rendez-vous. His German accent and mangled English sentence structure is side-splitting. Sabine Grout is credited as the dialect coach and she has helped each performer find his or her most outrageous French, or in Wilson’s case German, self.

Carl Sprague has designed a jewel of a small, flexible set. It has plenty of doors – five, to be exact – for slamming and popping out of unexpectedly (and we are told my Gustav that “it is like a warren of rabbits” behind those doors), as well as a window and two side entrances. Coleman and Morey have conflated the second and third acts into one and you’d better keep your eyes open for the chaos in which the set is changed as Act II gives way to Act III!

The sound design by Michael Pfieffer is seamless, incorporating lots of fun French musette music by The Baguette Quartette.

If I haven’t made it clear before, I’ll say it one more time: The Ladies Man is just plain TOO much fun! You HAVE to go! If you only see one comedy this summer, this is the one to see. I say that with tremendous confidence, even though this is the first show of the season. I challenge all comers to prove me wrong over the next three months.

The Shakespeare and Company production of The Ladies Man runs through August 31 in the Founders' Theatre, 70 Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. Call 413-637-3353 for reservations.

* Feaydeau fans will also want to book tickets also for the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of a new version of A Flea in Her Ear by David Ives, directed by Tony-winner John Rando on their Main Stage July 31-August 10.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008

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