Running from last Thursday through Sunday in Kelsey Theatre, Molieres Scapin proved that raw comic slapstick is among the most enduring comedic devices known to man, perhaps with good reason.
The play featured guest director Mariana Araoz, an Argentine resident of France. While visiting St. Olaf several years ago she met Artist in Residence and Artistic Director Gary Gisselman who, impressed with her work with theater masks, offered her a chance to direct Scapin. She enthusiastically accepted.
Scapin, the plays corrupt hero, effortlessly cheats, lies and exhorts his way through the play. He is well known for his skills and is given the task of relieving Lady Geronte and Lady Argonte of their money and rearranging their sons marriages. Playing the character with the charming energy of a young collie, Ted Koshiol 06 gave the role enough chutzpah to bring even the slowest scenes to their conclusion.
The real stars of the play, however, were the masks. The expertly-crafted expressions featured unforgettably monstrous noses that would make Pinocchio look like an honest boy. The mask designer, Etienne Champion, crafted masks that defined and gave life to their wearers far more than any costume piece.
With a thin, unsophisticated script, the play became sluggish in the second half. Thankfully, the brilliant bit-character parts played by Matt Trucano 06 and Max Wojtanowicz 06 kept the play afloat. The actors displayed a knack for physical comedy at which even Jim Carrey would marvel. The play, in three acts, ran continuously, which also aided the otherwise ailing pace of the performance.
The scene where Scapin attempts to dupe Lady Geronte out of 500 pesos may be the best example of where the comedys slapstick antics fell flat. After consenting to give Scapin the money, Lady Geronte accidentally leaves with the money in hand (think Bilbo Baggins) more times than I bothered to count. The resulting dialogue from each foible had the zing of a knock-knock joke and the wit of a Laffy Taffy wrapper.
Wheeled set pieces, though fairly lackluster, offered seamless scene transitions. The shimmering curtains on the facades offered a bit of unintentional comedy as they attached themselves to every actor that entered through them.
The music was simple a two-piece orchestra yet highly effective. Kevin Meyer 08 played the piano and Mary Shaffer 07 played violin. They also wore masks and costumes and, in what is becoming a St. Olaf theatre trademark, interacted with the players on stage.
The play itself comes out of a 16th century Italian tradition called commedia dellarte. This form of theater is highly improvisational, and this production preserved the tradition.
Intermittent tango dances, choreographed by Julia Langenberg 06, were a fitting addition to the performance, in line with the tradition of commedia dellarte.
The scene with the captain, played by Jake Mahler 07, proved to be the productions showstopper. Mahler portrayed the over-confident under-tall captain who makes sound effects for each footfall as he saunters across the stage.
In order to further increase his grandeur, the captain constantly berated his guards for standing taller than him. The bold inclusion of disco dance hit Shake your Booty overstepped the comedic bounds, however, and put the scene on par with parodies like Austin Powers 3: Goldmember.
The play's over-the-top physical comedy made for an entertaining performance, and the high-energy cast, along with its generally strong sense of comedic timing, was impressive.
Slow scenes dragged the show down halfway through, but the casts abundant effort brought the show to an amiable conclusion. Ultimately, the shows glittering jewel was its use of masks. A year from now, when the plot is long forgotten, I will remember Scapins Cyrano-esque nose.