Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Beasts have a ball with Molière

Beth Pearson takes a ride on love's carousel.  Photos: Roger Metcalfe.

Molière, like Shaw and so many other great comic writers, is now a rarity on the Boston stage. But fans of the French master should take heart - Matthew Woods' Imaginary Beasts have made a small tradition of performing obscure Molièriana - and if there's any justice, their latest, Lovers' Quarrels (an early comedy in a recent verse translation by Richard Wilbur), should prove one of their biggest hits.  For it's among their most vibrantly funny and accessible efforts: Woods' signature whimsy brings a sparkling sheen to the script's high commedia style, and almost his entire cast is hilariously accomplished; meanwhile the design (as always at Imaginary Beasts) is close to a tour de force. It's easily the most entertaining evening on the local boards - charming in that deep way that only classic theatre can achieve.

And frankly, to my mind the text itself is of considerable interest, so I'm surprised it's not better known. Le Dépit Amoureux (technically "The Amorous Despite") was Molière's fourth play, and dates from the close of his provincial period - just before the royal performance that established him in Paris. So it has clear ambitions as a kind of audition designed to bridge the gap between commedia efforts like The Flying Doctor and the more sophisticated surfaces of high court comedy.

The first complete English translation, 1739 
But it was only his second effort in verse - so yes, it scans here and there as a little rigid. But as the plot progresses, you can hear the playwright's distinctive voice shaking free of poetic convention; indeed, I'd argue there are scenes in the latter half of Lovers' Quarrels that are a match for the masterpieces (and it goes without saying that Richard Wilbur's translation is brilliant, as always).  So we should not only be grateful to Woods and his Beasts for giving the city what amounts to a Molière premiere, but also for illuminating a key episode in this playwright's development.

We should also just be thankful for such a good time. Woods has shaken off the spooky shadows of last fall's "Hairy Tales" with a vengeance; here he's in the pink - often hot pink - and has chosen the carousel as his metaphor for love's roundelay. And just for good measure, he has flooded the stage with balloons and bouncing balls to boot. (Indeed, by the finale, a beach ball about eight feet across rolls onto the stage to squash the characters beneath their own airy ridiculousness.) The company doesn't waste too much time on the intricately absurd plot - there are actually two switched babies in this one, as well as girls-dressed-as-boys and a wedding-in-disguise - so don't worry if you can't always track what's going on (I couldn't); we all know where it's headed in the end, so my advice is just enjoy the ride.

Because it's a truly delightful ride. Many of the Beasts are working here at the top of their game - stalwarts Joey C. Pelletier and Amy Meyer go at their parts hammer-and-tongs, while the witty Beth Pearson and the doleful William Schuller stretch out satirically as they never have before; even relative newcomers Bryan Bernfeld, Erin Eva Butcher and Anneke Reich quickly find their feet. Special mention, however, must go to Cameron Cronin for his brilliantly dyspeptic turn as the much-put-upon Mascarille, and Lynn R. Guerra's loose-limbed Beast debut as the acrobatic Ascagne (I'm always impressed with Guerra, who has long been a leading light on the fringe, but I think she may have been born to play commedia). All these talented folks are given able support by fellow Beasts Will Jobs, Melissa Walker and Michael Chodos in numerous roles and walk-ons; all together, this is the most charming ensemble in town, and their efforts are far closer to the spirit of true commedia, I think, than much of what we've seen lately on larger stages.

I'm afraid I must also bore you with a round of praise for costumer Cotton Talbot-Minkin (here assisted by Erica Desautels), who blends Watteau and Maxfield Parrish to superb effect; the witty sound design by Woods himself and Dierde Benson is likewise always amusing. It's some measure of the inspiration at work here that Woods can incorporate all kinds of contemporary music cues into his mix (even Ennio Morricone gets a nod) while keeping faith with the classic spirit of Molière.  But then that sort of freedom is often a hallmark of true vision, isn't it.

Having a ball with Molière: William Schuller, Cameron Cronin, and Amy Meyer. 

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