Saturday, April 17, 2010

Auburn: "Scapin"

Director Chris Qualls has brought the Telfair Peet Theatre at Auburn University a two-act laugh riot in Bill Irwin & Mark O'Donnell's "freely adapted" version of Moliere's "Scapin" -- and Qualls and his energetic ensemble have brought a lot of their own inventiveness to bear.

The script is true to Moliere's comic intentions, and utilizes assorted conventions and character-types of the commedia dell'arte: lots of slapstick, prattfalls, broad gestures, brightly colored costumes, a fast pace & heightened energy, vocal & physical gymnastics, instantly recognizable characters (blustering parents, rebellious children, wily servants among them) fill the stage from start to finish, and are given significant variety through the discipline of the actors and improvizational techniques that keep everything fresh. -- Mr. Qualls and his able cast successfully capitalize on all of them.

An often put-upon servant, Scapin [Payne Hopton-Jones, whose focus and energy improved after a tentative start], is conscripted by both his own master's son and a neighbor's son to convince the parents to approve of their sons' marriages -- and to pay for them. With the help of another servant, Sylvestre [Emily Stephens effortlessly follows Scapin's ever-changing plot scenarios], these machinations grow more complicated and require adjustments at every turn.

Huge demands are made of all the actors; they must be in good shape in order to sustain the frenetic pace and continuous tumbling they are called upon to do. These actors show no signs of either effort or exhaustion -- all seems to flow so very easily, whether a traditional leap-frog that later becomes a series of leaps while standing fully upright, or bouncing to wondrous heights, or bending their bodies into pretzel shapes or gravity-defying postures...all the while speaking animatedly and rapidly at full volume without gasping for breath.

The actors are individually consistent in their roles, yet there are frequent surprises that regularly hit their comic marks: Tyler Baxter as Octave is a bundle of bubbly energy reminiscent of Richard Simmons, with an effervescent face to match the silliness in the role; he is matched by Kristin Hopkins as Hyacinth, a vision in pink whose comic timing of switching energy is admirable. Leander, as played by Chase Cox, is a cowering sort who can twist his body into almost cartoon-like positions; his love interest is Zerbinette [Taylor Galvin], an archly defiant and outspoken woman whose deep laugh and aggressive manner make her one to contend with. The gifted Kat Grilli plays Octave's father Argante with such vocal power and ease as the standout actor of the spoken word. And Leander's father Geronte is played deftly by Eli Jolley, whose Monty Pythonesque "Ministry of Silly Walks" almost steals the show.

There are some hidden treasures in this production, not the least of which is an understated musician, Lloyd, played by Phillip Beard; his eccentric guitar playing and sound effects punctuate the scenes, often at unexpected times. -- And frequent anachronistic references to contemporary music, television shows, Sarah Palin, and popular films garner rapturous applause.

Replete with audience involvement, mistaken identities, revelations of true identities, confusion verging on chaos, and a wild chase scene near the finale, the comic happy ending comes at last. In just short of two hours, this laugh-out-loud romp leaves audiences aching with laughter. Wow!