Next Theatre Company

A little more than a year and a half ago Dexter Bullard attempted to modernize Ibsen’s didactic tragedy An Enemy of the People, and ended up creating a broad, buffoonish show, Infusoria. It was neither serious nor funny, moving nor enlightening; it was only boring and long. In Next Theatre’s Turcaret the Financier Bullard once again takes a classic text, a seldom-produced 18th-century French farce, and turns it into a cartoon.

This time, however, the results are considerably more pleasing. Where the cartoonish elements of Infusoria often seemed like desperate last-minute attempts to save a sinking show, every comic turn in Turcaret is clearly part of Bullard’s original concept. That includes the witty set and the broad acting style, as well as Sraa Davidson’s bizarre costumes and Tina Haglund-Spitza’s marvelously surreal wigs decorated with emblems of each character’s obsessions. Businessman Turcaret wears a suit made of power ties and a wig made of rolled cash-register receipts; the alcoholic marquis has wine corks on his lapels and liquor-bottle labels for hair.

It’s as if Bullard–as translator, adapter, and director–wanted to prove the extent to which cartoons are the modern equivalent of farces like Alain-Rene Lesage’s Turcaret. Which is why David Sinaiko and Tracey Gilbert’s Bugs Bunny-ish takes on the sly servants, Frontin and Lisette, only make their performances stronger and funnier.

Like cartoons, farces exist in worlds of heightened reality, with their own system of poetic justice and their own laws of physics and chemistry. Coyote falls off a high cliff, and only his pride is hurt. In Bullard’s Turcaret we accept anachronisms like a modern elevator in an 18th-century villa.

Of course the characters in the original play are essentially caricatures to begin with, many of them lifted right out of commedia dell’arte, with crystal-clear motivations and hilarious character flaws. Turcaret is not just your average businessman, but a man so pompous, so unscrupulous, and so clearly unworthy of his material success that from the moment he steps onstage we know he deserves to be swindled. Likewise, from the moment we first meet the wily, quick-witted Frontin we know he will get the best of his betters.

Pushing the characterizations to their extremes works only because everyone in Bullard’s intelligent cast–which includes ex-Oobleckian Mickle Maher and ex-Chicago Actors Ensemble member Millicent Hurley–knows how to act broadly while staying this side of infantile slapstick. Even Doug Vickers, whose broad acting was not to my taste in the Synergy production of Terrence McNally’s Dunelawn, is quite funny as Turcaret. Of course it’s hard to make this villain too smarmy, too obnoxious, or too big a loud-mouthed lout.

However, the real star of the show is Sinaiko, who works twice as hard as anyone else–he greets all the members of the audience as they come into the theater and warms them up before each act. His Frontin is so charming that without him Turcaret would be only a shadow of its present self.

I have suffered through any number of reverent, academically correct, and humorless productions of classic Italian or French farces. Bullard’s Turcaret is nothing short of inspired.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dexter Bullard.