by Fernand Crommelynck
directed by Paul Bargetto
review Louis Lopardi – September 21, 2007
If you are fortunate to spot the late great Michael Chekhov in his rare 1940’s film appearances – In Our Time, Specter of the Rose, or Hitchcock’s Spellbound – you see a master of physical acting, gesture, and psychological moment. Even in such a popular entertainment as Yankee Doodle Dandy, James Cagney – using the same techniques – transcends his gangster boy image to personify the driven showman George M. Cohan, inventing a walk and a pose that even in stasis said volumes about the character. These masters drew from the well of artistic legacy that the Commedia style, with its emphasis on physicality, left behind.
In at least one local company today this tradition and
influence is alive and well. East River Commedia is presenting Crommelynck’s 1922 farce The Magnificent Cuckold in a lavish and well prepared production at
Tuomas Hiltunen as Estrugo, the silently suffering friend of the Cuckold, was an object lesson in the power of such techniques. He struck – and held for inordinate lengths of time – poses emblematic of classical commedia. And when he did move, he moved with purpose and grace and character. He exemplified the attention to attitude and physical gesture seen in so many in the cast, but here brought to perfection: The set of the head, the hunched shoulders, constricted wrists, bowed extremities,- even pronated ankles- all combined to personify total powerless servility. He spoke volumes by merely standing still.
Troy Lavallee played Bruno, the maniacal husband, with a secure voice technique which enabled him to transcend the acoustic difficulties of the space. A deep sense of character pervaded his performance to the extent that the personality changes as he slipped ever more into dementia rang true even as they astonished us with their absurdity. As his pretty young wife Stella, Morgan Lynch delightfully treaded the dangerous waters of her husband’s jealous mania, making even the absurdities ring true. The unaccredited masks were excellent and just enough (yes, Crommelynck’s play is a veritable catalogue of farce techniques) – but someone should have noticed that Stella’s, being a full face mask, muffled her voice – a voice which in its higher register already suffered for intelligibility due to the immense area of hard surfaces in the set. The entire cast undoubtedly was aided by the astute Movement Coach Heather Benton.
Director Paul Bargetto instilled attention to detail, impeccable comic timing, and precision ensemble work in his universally excellent cast. To quibble, it was the pacing at suture points that marred an otherwise faultless performance. A prelude was artfully lengthened – presumably to set the mood proportional to a long show. But this not quite being the Ring Cycle, a contemporary audience fresh from Manhattan’s busy whirl was confused rather than calmed by such an approach, judging by their comments afterwards. As elsewhere in the show, this prelude led to the first of many lovingly detailed stage pictures. Exquisite as they were, these tableaux were often lingered-over rather too long. One place however where this lingering eye excelled was the finale: Often rushed for comic effect by other directors, here Mr. Bargetto’s slow pacing rendered a sure and natural unfolding which heightened the pathos of the moment – a reading far more true to the text. And this director is certainly a master of the textual truth as well as the style.
Nico Muhly’s music perfectly suited the production: hauntingly episodic guitar laid over a bed of minimalism, and for unafraid bravado – an astoundingly apropos touch of musique concrète. Armanda Bujak’s costuming was timeless, evocative, and perfect. Lighting designer Tim Cryan painted minor miracles with a restricted complement of instruments – but sometimes fell prey to the slavish attention to moody visuals ubiquitous in the production. For long stretches of time the audience was fighting both powerful back-lighting and bright exteriors; eye-fatigue thus rendered all faces as shadowy blocks. His lighting had more subtle surprises during the penultimate night festival (The story climaxes with the feast of the town’s patron saint Géraud – a blind saint, fittingly enough for this story), including an astonishing use of greens to suggest interior moonlight – something I never would have expected to work as well as it did. He was aided by having an elegant set to light. Set designer Mimi Lien created a towering edifice of slotted boards, somehow both expressionist in mood while rustic in appearance. This hidden jewel-box of a theater with its true proscenium and balcony rail seems to bring out the best in Off-Off Broadway designers.
The flaws are minor, the rewards many. Do not miss this gem of a show.
(running through October 6; visit Eastriver.Org)