Ah, the glories of the French Farce, especially as created by that master Georges Feydeau. The numberless doors opening and closing by crazed madmen, the split second timing, and the delirious laughter of the audience. Described by sages as “a precision watch running too fast” or “a well oiled machine” or a “great ballet choreographed by monkeys”, the French Farce remains the pinnacle of achievement for comic theater artists. The Dramateurs at the Barn Playhouse are currently presenting A FLEA IN HER EAR; perhaps the master’s greatest play.
Feydeau’s farces are also pretty sexy: witness the term “bedroom farce”, and this one has a bedroom to remember. Located in the bordello/hotel called, (wait for it), “The Pretty Pussy” where all the guests are married, “but not to each other”, this room features a bed on a turntable that can whisk the occupants to an adjoining room in an instant. Feydeau had heard rumors of an actual 1890’s contraption designed for politicians and royalty, who might need a quick escape.
Design plays a major role in farces. The sets have many doors and contraptions, and the costumes must be suitably outrageous, if only to help the audience distinguish the various personalities in a large cast.
The plots are a series of misunderstandings, misdelivered packages and letters, not to mention disguises and mistaken identities. This farce sends a group of upper class Parisians slumming to the above-mentioned hotel in the hopes of catching their husbands-wives-lovers in the act. It’s all very French with everyone having love in the afternoon with his or her various mistresses.
The characters are driven by DESPERATION, in capital letters. They pursue their goals with such mania that the audience will accept almost anything that develops. The result: total suspension of disbelief, and laughter.
Such an experience will not be found at the Barn Playhouse. The program says that the play is set in Paris in the 1920’s. Nothing in the settings, costumes or performances conveys this. Indeed, the designs are so bland and the acting so slowly paced, that one feels that they are performing a midwestern drama by William Inge.
For Farce to take hold, the audience must believe the characters’ absurd desperation. The actors at The Barn “play at” the desperation without total conviction. No translator is listed in the program, but the dialogue is written in a language just heightened enough to cause the performers discomfort. The same is true for the risqué humor, which is tentatively handled. The first act setting is built in such a rickety fashion that the entire set shakes as each character enters and exits. The audience frequently gasped, no doubt in fear of the actor’s safety. The famed revolving bed loses its magic due to the all too visible stage crew.
The play is blocked adequately enough, which suggests that first time director Jim Hopper might have had success with a simple American comedy.
There is one bright spot. One actor, Paul Recupero, understands the style. His manic actions are totally believable when, as Don Carlos, a Spaniard who thinks he is a cuckold, chases everyone with a gun. Not only is the speed of his performance in an entirely different play than the others, but every gesture and vocal inflection are precise. The friendly audience who had been watching with an occasional chuckle suddenly exploded with laughter at his every moment.
Feydeau’s genius must be matched in every area of production: design, direction and acting. The French Farce remains an unattainable goal at the Barn.
A FLEA IN HER EAR
By Georges Feydeau
June 15-23, 2012
at the Barn Playhouse
Christopher Lane and Rittenhouse Boulevard