Curious Theatre Branch

When we first see him on the narrow Curious Theatre stage, the immortal Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais sits with a towel over his face and his feet in a bowl of water, drunk, aging, exiled, reciting the recipe of a dish no one will cook for him, yelling for a maid who doesn’t speak his language and can’t remember his name, while his powdered periwig lies like a dead cat on the sideboard.

Beaumarchais broods. He quarrels with his maid. He recites long letters of complaint and supplication and self-defense. He drinks and reels and remembers.

That’s about half of I, Figaro, and if it’s all there was, the show might still be worth the trip to Curious Theatre Branch’s cramped new quarters in Wicker Park. Beaumarchais the man, of course, was a brilliant playwright and a still more brilliant controversialist, a master of invective, who fought and won his private quarrels in the court of public opinion through pamphlets that are still read as literature. Peter Reinemann as Beaumarchais is actorly in an old-fashioned sense: He growls and roars, sounds his vowels like musical notes, self-consciously plays with prose rhythms as if they were verse. He doesn’t sound natural–even though an exaggerated sound is perfectly in character for this most exaggerated of men. But as he works his way through this remarkable material–the pleas, the railing, the exquisitely constructed sorrow–he gradually lays bare the strange duality of a man of letters who cares passionately for technique even when mourning a lost life.

And what a life it was. Late in the show, Beaumarchais lists his achievements: musician, inventor of machines, writer of plays and memoirs, printer, enemy of censorship, businessman, and friend of the American Revolution, for which he did more than any other Frenchman. And of course creator of one of the theater’s great characters, the immortal free spirit and schemer Figaro.

It’s Figaro, of course, who makes up the other half of the evening. Beaumarchais’ monologues are interspersed with the scenes of a charming though utterly stripped-down performance of The Marriage of Figaro. As if in a theater of memory, the aging author watches as his young second self defends his bride against the lascivious count through brilliant wit and reckless conniving. He stalks through his lovely creation, unbelieving. “Did I write that?” he huffs. “What an idiot!”

Who’d believe him? Figaro isn’t often played in this country, except in Mozart’s adaptation, but it’s no slouch of a play: breakneck stage business, a plot only a watchmaker could have devised, and an inimitable tone–witty, amused, and yet utterly outraged, as if like its protagonist it laughs only to keep from weeping.

The Marriage cast are all fine. Brian Shaw as Figaro is a figure out of Hogarth: a pale face beneath an appallingly jaunty peruke, a hectic eye, and his lips frozen in a positively reptilian rictus. His manner–a bit stiff, a bit posed, and seething with wit–is perfect. Jill Daly, producer and coauthor of the show, gives Suzanne, the bride-to-be, a fine pair of eyes and an advanced degree in flirtation, while Jonathan Lavan as Count Almaviva is piggish and petulant. The role of Cherubino the pageboy has been cast, as in Beaumarchais’ day, with a woman. Teria Gartelos has a sweet singing voice and manages, in one disguise scene, to wear a dress as if for the first time in her life. (John Coyne’s costumes, by the way, almost count as an extra character or two, and I long for a chair upholstered in Figaro’s waistcoat.)

Coauthor Chris Pretorius, a veteran of South Africa’s Market Theatre, directed. And if he’s the one responsible for the tone of the piece, he’s a valuable addition to the local scene. The real glory of I, Figaro is the way it gets its points across. The script isn’t really written: it’s constructed out of found pieces. Figaro and Beaumarchais finally converse near the end of the play, but nothing they say is as powerful as the conversation of style they’ve been having all along. These are men trapped in genres–young Figaro in farce, old Beaumarchais in a tedious kind of tragedy–that don’t express the complexities of their souls. Figaro is doomed to be mannered, Beaumarchais to be tedious. Figaro must conceal; Beaumarchais needn’t–no one listens. Figaro’s youthful vigor is wasted in mannerism; Beaumarchais is vigorous only in memory. It’s the ages of man done as theatrical history, and it’s admirable.

If you want to split hairs, you can make the case that I, Figaro cheats a little. The excerpts make The Marriage of Figaro seem brittle and artificial; if you don’t know the play, you might think Pretorius and Daly were doing something clever. It looks like they’ve discovered anger and satire in what was simply the blandest of farces, when actually Marriage was renowned for being relatively naturalistic–and for the vicious and obvious portraits Beaumarchais painted of his enemies, especially in some of the subplots the Curious production sensibly omits. And if the work of his youth was tougher than this production suggests, the fate of his old age was milder. Beaumarchais returned from exile, rejoined his family, and wrote again about the characters in Marriage before his death in 1799.

But let’s not split those hairs. I, Figaro is handsome and ingenious and theatrical through and through.