Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2008
Normally I make note of especially funny or poignant lines from a show to mention in my review, but John Rando’s production of A Flea In Her Ear moves so rapidly and the laughs come so quickly one on the heels of the other, that I quickly gave up trying to remember anything and simply enjoyed the show.
Were it not for the two intermissions (necessary to move a rather monumental second act set in and out of place) this show would be the theatrical equivalent of a rollercoaster ride. One minute you’re sitting in the little car waiting for something to happen, then you’re hurtling up and down and around corners, and then its all over and you’re left breathless and ready for more.
This is the second Feydeau farce of the 2008 Berkshire Summer Theatre Season, the first being The Ladies Man which Shakespeare & Company opened on Memorial Day weekend and is running through Labor Day. (I deemed it “fall down, wet your pants, laugh ‘til your sides hurt funny.”) Neither it nor this production are unadulterated Georges Feydeau, who we poor English-speaking twits must have in translation anyway. The Ladies Man is “freely adapted and translated” by Charles Morey from Feydeau’s earliest hit Tailleur pour dames and from his 1907 Une puce à l'oreille (A Flea in Her Ear), while this WTF production is “a new version” of the latter by playwright David Ives.
If you are at all familiar with Ives’ work, and he is very popular with high school, college and community theatres, you will recognize his hand here. I am actually not a fan of Ives, I find him sophomoric, but here Feydeau’s Belle Epoch brilliance is nicely balanced by Ives contemporary ear for a gag and the script is very funny idea.
So is this magnificent cast, who hurtle about Alexander Dodge’s two sets with gay abandon. Acts I & III are set in the elegant blue and white living room of Monsieur Victor Chandebise (Mark Harelik), the uptight head of a Parisian insurance firm, and his wife Raymonde (Kathryn Meisle). Victor’s 20-something nephew Camille Chandebise (Carson Elrod), a young man with a speech impediment that prevents him from pronouncing consonants, is staying with them. They have two servants – a couple straight out of Moliere and the Commedia Del'Arte before that – a dyspeptic butler, Etienne (Jeremy Beck), and his saucy wife, Antoinette (Heidi Niedermeyer).
Raymonde fears that Victor is cheating on her because he has “stopped being a husband” in bed and is encouraged by her friend Lucienne (Mia Barron) to write him an anonymous letter from a fictitious lusty paramour luring him to a rendez vous at the notorious Frisky Puss Hotel. There Raymonde will lie in wait and, if Victor shows up, she’ll know he’s untrue, and if he doesn’t she’ll know their marriage is safe.
Victor meanwhile confesses to his old friend Dr. Finache (Brooks Ashmanskas) that he is having problems fulfilling his marital duties to Raymonde. When the ladies’ scented letter arrives (Lucienne has penned it and Raymonde has doused it liberally with perfume) Victor assumes he has been mistaken for his dashing friend Roman Tournel (Tom Hewitt) and sends him off to the assignation at the Frisky Puss in his stead. Lucienne’s firery Spanish husband Don Carlos Homenides de Histangua (David Pittu) stops by, sees the letter, recognizes his wife’s handwriting, and goes ballistic (literally) waving a pistol about and threatening to kill Victor, Tournel, and anyone else to touches his wife.
Act II finds everyone, and I do mean everyone, at The Frisky Puss, a hotel of well-deserved ill-repute. It is run by Ferraillion (Tom McGowan) and his wife Olympia (Debra Jo Rupp), along with a remarkably flexible “chambermaid” Eugenie (Sarah Turner), who may do more with the beds than just make them, an elderly man, Baptiste (MacIntyre Dixon), who acts as a decoy of sorts, and a drunken lout of a bellboy named Poche.
Now, here’s an important fact. Harelik plays both Poche and Victor, but Victor doesn’t know that Poche exists and Poche doesn’t know that Victor exists and no one who knows Victor knows Poche and no one who knows Poche knows Victor and absolutely no one knows that Victor and Poche are virtually identical.
Okay, so the curtain comes up on Act II and chaos ensues at The Frisky Puss, an over-decorated Belle Epoch horror of pinks and purples with a zillion doors, a set of stairs (there’s a floor above and a floor below the one we see), and a revolving bed.
In live theatre disaster is always only a revolving bed away. Apparently the bed behaved so badly at the first public performance on Wednesday night that the show ran four hours (it only ran two hours and fifty minutes at the press opening the following night) and the Thursday matinee was canceled while mechanical problems were addressed. So this enormous complicated show full of flying bodies and slamming doors went up before the press after only one, disastrous, live performance. The lobby was abuzz. Would anything go wrong? Would we get to go home before midnight? Enquiring minds wanted to know.
Realize that the tech crew had from the moment the final curtain fell on Three Sisters at 11 pm on Sunday until the curtain rose on “Flea in Her Ear” at 8 pm on Wednesday to strike the four ENORMOUS sets for the former and install, light, and decorate the two equally humongous sets for the latter. This is the way it is in summer stock and generally those techies work their unseen magic and all goes well. Occasionally, the bed won’t revolve when its supposed to and/or revolves madly when it shouldn’t, or, as occurred in the 2001 WTF MainStage production of The Winter’s Tale, the mechanical bear refuses to enter for the famous “Exit, pursued by a bear” cue in Act III, scene iii. People are still talking about that damned bear. I don’t think this bed will engender anywhere near as much infamy.
At the press opening the bed did cause un petit problem by refusing to move when it should have, but the actors covered valiantly. You could feel the ripples from that early difficulty as the action at The Frisky Puss took a few minutes to start flowing smoothly afterwards, but soon it had worked itself up to a rousing pitch and as the whole thing concluded in true Fawlty Towersian hotel hysteria. I KNOW I saw a naked pair of buttocks! Oh, those French!
So who’s hysterical? Well, everyone, but special kudos go to Ashmanskas for the hilarious physical comedy he brings to role of the lecherous doctor (watch for him to bound nimbly over the chaise longue), and to Elrod for actually making himself understood without using any consonants. Pittu also manages to make himself perfectly clear speaking with a THICK Spanish accent. (Of course, everyone is supposed to be speaking in French but they are speaking in English so we, the audience, can understand them, but the one English-speaking character, Rugby (Geoffrey Murphy), a perpetually frustrated patron of The Frisky Puss, can barely be understood at all by anyone.) Beck gets points for standing on his head, and Turner does amazing things with her legs at the opening of Act II. Rupp looks fantastic in her frilly black lace ensemble (was it just last summer she was playing a 66 year-old-woman in Mornings At Seven at the BTF?) and has lovely nervous breakdowns.
On the Relative Value of French Farce
After I had seen The Ladies Man back in June, I recommended it to a gentleman who looked at me stiffly and replied, “I have tickets to Othello.” The implication was that I could take my little French farce and stick it where the sun don’t shine because he was going to see “real theatre.”
If you are of that mind-set, please, go get tickets to Othello. It’s a fine production.
But if, like me, you realize that “real theatre” comes in all flavors, I highly recommend the hearty laughs to be had at A Flea in Her Ear and The Ladies Man. In fact I recommend seeing both of them because there are some subtle similarities – husbands who arouse their wives suspicions because they can’t “perform” in the bedroom, hilariously funny characters with ridiculous speech impediments, and, of course, lots of lacy lingerie – and because they are FUN. Who the heck made the rule that only serious theatre was “great”?? Must “art” always conclude with a stage full of dead bodies?? I doubt it.
A Flea in Her Ear runs through August 10 on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs two hours and fifty minutes (when the bed behaves) and is suitable for the whole family (in spite of the fleeting glimpse of a naked buttock). For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008