Posted by: strugglesome | March 29, 2011

A Comedy of Errors: Temple Theater’s A Flea in Her Ear

The French are known for many things. Their wines gain coos across the nations, their cheese inspire envy in foreign cows, their fashion week coaxes a smile from even icy Anna Wintour (don’t tell me her name ISN’T some kind of cosmic joke). But their theater, well, their theater is a bit of a puzzle. On one hand we have Moliere and Racine, the comedies of manners and tragedies of myth from the court of Louis XIV. And on the other hand we have Ionesco and Ubu Roi and Artaud and all the absurdity and torture we’ve come to associate with a country that serves beef raw and thinks a beret is a legitimate article of clothing. But what happened between The Misanthrope and Macbett? Sure, there was a revolution, a war, an embarrassing defeat to the British, a few student uprisings and some visual art, but come on, France! Time management is an important skill for a country to learn. And at least playwright Georges Feydeau kept his day planner in check, spending the Belle Epoch writing farces rife with everyone’s favorite subject, sex. And so we have the erectile dysfunction joke wrapped up in a case of mistaken identity that is A Flea in Her Ear, produced by Temple Theater and starring a huge cast of Temple students. And it’s a good thing we have it, too, because it’s rare to come across a piece of theater that wants to be nothing other than what it is, especially when what it consists of is pure unadulterated silliness.

The plot is an impossibly complicated narrative melding comedy of manners, melodrama and social commentary declaimed with one eyebrow fully arched. Raymonde Chandebise (the charmingly chipper Merci Lyons-Cox) is firmly convinced that her business-man spouse Victor (the overworked but well-played Harrison Lampert) is committing adultery all because every time she wants to get amorous, Victor is, um, “tired”. Now, if this were a British comedy that would be the solution, not the problem, but Raymonde is unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with abstinence. So, enlisting the aid of her friend Lucienne de Histangua (the excellently layered and arch Laura Berberich) the ladies write a love note imploring Victor to meet some imaginary hussy at The Frisky Puss Hotel (and to think, some people find the French sophisticated) so Raymonde can catch him in the act. Of course. Raymonde’s handwriting is sure to be recognized, so Lucienne pens the missive. No complications there, right? Well, not until Victor, who is “as faithful as a poodle” and simply suffers from performance anxiety, shows the note to his friend Tournel (the solid but flexible Robert Carlton) who thinks it’s for him and decides to forgo his fascination with his friend’s wife for the evening to pursue this new cheri. And then of course Victor passes the note over to Homenides De Histangua (the gloriously hilarious Julian Cloud) a violently possessive Argentine with the mustache of a matador and the temper of his bull (Some stereotypes are true). And off they all head to the hotel, joined by Victor’s nephew Camille (the sweetly squeaking Chris Monaco) who, having been cured of his crippling speech deficiency by the pedant of the piece, Dr. Finache (a rather stiff Owen Pelesh), is looking forward to ravaging the Chandebise’s maid, Antoinette (a pouty Christina Garbarino), unconscious that her husband, Etienne the valet (a pious Peter Camp), is also on his way to stop Senor De Histangua from committing uxorcide. Did I mention that all of this happens just in the first act of a three act three-hour play?

Then we have the hotel, a pay by the hour sort of place that features its own cast of characters including innkeeper Ferraillion (a strong jawed fiercely sincere Patric Pote), his lascivious bride/former showgirl Olympia (Kate Peterman, who does quite a bit with very little), foolish sports mad Brit Rugby (a madly mugging Mike Nappi), bearded geezer Baptiste (the wheezingly comic Matt Dotzman), sassy chambermaid Eugenie (the dryly droll Kerry Brind’Amour), and two guests (Cameron Scot Slusser and Anna Flynn-Meketon) whose attempts at afternoon delight are thwarted by, um, well, pick a plot point, any plot point. And there is also Poche, the drunken bell boy who is also played by Lampert, a device written into the script by Feydeau for a classic Prince and the Pauper panache.  This way, the actor gets to be both the fool and the king, both the Figaro and the Count, while the audience squirms under the weight of the heavy dramatic irony. Will the rest of the characters ever discover that there are two men with the same face running around instead? What will become of the mistaken Madame Raymonde and the amorous Tournel? Will we ever understand what Camille is saying? Will Senora Lucienne survive her jealous husband’s rage? And who the hell is Dr. Finache sleeping with? Almost all of these questions wrap themselves neatly up in the final moments of the third act, all couples back in alignment and deeply regretting the fact that “One has to jump to conclusions, how else does one make sense of things?”.  Of course, one wishes that all asses could be made and unmade so easily, and over the course of a single day.

Played in the overwhelmingly large Tomlinson Theater, the piece as a whole feels rather dwarfed by the space, which is no fault of Kyle Melton’s set design, which is a charmingly colorful affair that looks like something Alfons Mucha would have drawn if he had been in the business of sketching pink hued bordellos. Chris Hallenbeck’s lighting does double duty trying to make the violent changes between the pale politeness of the Chandebise’s home and the unapologetically loud teal of the Frisky Puss hotel feel natural and cast the actors in a flattering shade. But it’s costume designer Jamie Grace-Duff and sound designer David O’Connor who clearly got to have the most fun. Grace-Duff’s costumes run the gamut between sumptuously rich and appropriately lower class, the bourgeoise in muted tones and sleek silhouettes, and the blue collars in bright blues and turquoises, everyone walking the line between historical accuracy and cartoon character with style. And O’Connor is having a ball with his mixer and slapstick sound clips; the entire soundscape scores at least half of the physical actions or lines with some sort of video-game like sound effect (if, say, video games took place in the bedrooms of late 19th century France and not, say,the Zelda universe).

But though the design is all practically pitch perfect, the piece as a whole has a few issues. The biggest issue is that it starts to drag where it should fly.  For farce to work, especially a farce that devolves into one long chase scene which encompasses the majority of the second and third acts, it needs to move at a breakneck pace that leaves the audience gasping and the actors winded, and while the first act is well paced, the following acts dip and sag a bit in the middle. It’s rare that one has to make this comment, but Kern’s direction is actually a little too well crafted, and a little too smart. Considering that this piece consisted of 50% winks, 30% nudges and 20% elbows straight to the gut, trying to elevate the material isn’t really doing it any favors, and for the most part Kern doesn’t try, but his actors can’t seem to help slipping into realism when all we want is the bliss of the clown. Part of this tension lies in Feydeau’s work itself, which can’t help but insert a touch of reality and message into what should be a purely socially skewering fun farce. And what is farce, really, if not a slightly better educated city mouse to Commedia Dell’arte’s country cousin?  As we all know, in Commedia it is the fools who are the secret heroes, and the heroes are the not-so-secret fools. But it is Victor Chandebise who gets to remain the hero of this work, while the drunken and confused Poche doesn’t even get a curtain call, and while Victor is the lone straight man in a room full of crazies, we came for the crazy, not the sane. And by the way, Victor, the next time you have this sort of issue, may I suggest Vigara? It works much faster, even if it’s not quite as much fun.

It’s worth noting that Feydeau himself died of syphilis, so when it comes to sexual foibles he knew of which he wrote. Temple Theater’s production of A Flea in Her Ear runs until April 3rd. Bring a friend, or even a date, though remember, “What is too far for a woman is never too far for a man”. Pick up tickets here.

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