Madness, impotence, adultery, prostitution, alcoholism, and sadomasochism are all ingredients for a light comedy in the hands of Georges Feydeau.

Writing for the bourgeoisie in turn-of-the-century Paris, Feydeau (1862-1921) served up dizzyingly funny bedroom farces that teased his audiences while ultimately reassuring them. In his 1907 La puce a l’oreille–known in English as A Flea in Her Ear–the characters flirt with free love before settling happily for traditional marital monogamy.

Feydeau catered to an affluent audience that found itself both titillated and threatened by increased opportunities for leisure and pleasure; the Belle Epoque French middle class was caught on the brink between the old order and a new era in which scientific and philosophical developments were opening doors of perception, and Feydeau perfectly captured the anxiety of a generation stuck in between.

It was a time very like the mid-1960s, notes director Michael Maggio, whose staging of A Flea In Her Ear opens next week at the Goodman Theatre. “The period between the death of John F. Kennedy and the real troubles of the Vietnam war and the peace movement, this was a period of mores, but it retained a certain innocence,” says Maggio. “That’s what we wanted to capture.” Working from a new adaptation of the play by Goodman’s associate director, Frank Galati (who will also star), Maggio has contrived to place the action in 1965.

Interestingly, it was in the mid-60s that Flea, now the most popular Feydeau play among language audiences, first reached those audiences in a major way. In 1966, Great Britain’s National Theatre presented Flea in a translation by British author John Mortimer (Rumpole of the Bailey), starring Albert Finney and directed by Jacques Charon of the Comedie-Francaise. The production delighted audiences with its risque sex-farce humor and madcap plot of mistaken identities; in 1968, Charon and Noel Coward collaborated on a film version starring Rex Harrison. But those productions were set in the time Feydeau intended–Paris in the early 1900s. Though Mortimer’s adaptation sought contemporary British equivalents for Feydeau’s slang, Galati’s script is, as far as Maggio knows, the first attempt to update the plays action.

“We were looking for a vehicle for Frank [to perform in],” Maggio says, “and I wanted to do a farce. A friend of Bob Falls’s had this idea of setting Flea in the 60s.” Falls, Goodman’s artistic director, agreed with Maggio that the script’s dual lead roles–Chandebise, a well-to-do insurance executive, and Poche, an inebriated porter in a house of ill repute–would fit Galati’s flair for comedy. (In the introduction to his published version of Flea, England’s Mortimer notes, “Jacques Charon said that the main qualification for an actor in a Feydeau farce was to be able to run a mile in the course of an evening: . . . the performers in these plays need to be middle-aged, out of condition Olympic athletes.”)

Galati’s adaptation, based on a literal translation by Abbott Chrisman, is “true to the mechanics of the play,” Maggio says, and it preserves a certain formality of language reflecting Feydeau’s style. But it plays freely with the original, too, starting with the characters’ names, which have all been changed into puns on French words. Chandebise, the proper insurance exec, has become Deboshe, a pun on “debauch”; his alter ego, the porter Poche, is now Goshe (sounds like “gauche”). Etienne, the butler, is now a hipster named Perrier (perhaps a joke on the fact that Feydeau drank only Perrier water, though at restaurants he kept a champagne bottle on his table for appearances’ sake); Tournel, the self-centered cad who is trying to seduce Deboshe’s wife, is here called Blase, and the sleazy Hotel du Minet Galant–literally, Hotel of the Courteous Kitten–is renamed the Hotel Pussy-a-Go-Go.

There are also the inevitable doses of 60s slang, though Maggio says, “There have been times when we tried to ‘hip up’ the language but then backed off because it was too much.” Still, Galati has permitted himself bawdy puns on drugs and sex–double entendres on words like “joint” and “peaking”–and, in one major change, has turned the character of an oversexed Englishman into an Indian, opening up possibilities for references to sitars, hookahs, and gurus.

And, of course, in re-creating as visually oriented a period as the 60s, the designs are essential. Costumer Lindsay Davis, whose credits include the Broadway musical Drood and numerous Shakespeare plays for Joseph Papp, has put together an eye popping melange of pumps and pendants, miniskirts and paisley shirts, bell-bottoms and turtlenecks. Broadway veteran set designer John Lee Beatty (Burn This) has concocted a white-and-black drawing room for the Deboshes’ home–its checkerboard motif recalls the trend-setting Avengers TV show–and, for the Hotel Pussy-a-Go-Go, a lurid scarlet palace right out of the wildest Playboy fantasies, complete with mirrored walls and a revolving circular bed.

“Beatty created a building which had the architectural features of the time the play was written and then furnished it with 60s stuff,” Maggio says. “It becomes a wonderful metaphor for what we’ve done with the play: the foundations are the same, but we’ve refurnished it.”

Maggio says that Galati wrote his final version after the cast was already chosen, and so was able to tailor the material not only for his own role but to the styles of some of Chicago’s best comic actors, including William J. Norris, Tom Towles, Laurel Cronin, Amy Morton, and Timothy Monsion. To bone up on both farce style and the 60s sensibility, the 36-year-old Maggio says he “watched lots of movies.” Particularly influential was the work of Stanley Donen (Bedazzled, Two for the Road) and, especially, Blake Edwards, whose 1964 double-header The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark introduced Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau and set the pace for the comedy films of the decade. Maggio pays homage to the Edwards-Sellers oeuvre by using Henry Mancini’s sound track for A Shot in the Dark as incidental music–along with, inevitably, the Beatles. “I really used that as the hook” conceptually, Maggio says of Edwards’s work. “A Flea in Her Ear would have been a great vehicle for Peter Sellers.” But Maggio notes that Feydeau’s comedy differs from Edwards’s in that it’s less episodic and more tightly constructed. “The machinery’s wound tighter,” he says.

The image of machinery is important in understanding Feydeau, Maggio believes, and not just as it pertains to the clockwork intricacy of the plot. “Man in his problems is reduced to a machine,” Maggio says. “The farceur sets up a machinery of plot that dehumanizes the characters” through rituals of physical violence and identity deconstruction that are viscerally funny but also frightening. “Even though you’re laughing all the time, you’re not being confronted with a pressing issue; there’s a subconscious release of the forces that dehumanize you. It creates a comic catharsis.”

Feydeau himself said: “To make a good vaudeville, you take the most tragic situation possible, a situation fit to make a mortician shudder, and you try to bring out its burlesque side.” That vision underlies Feydeau’s comedy–and audiences’ response to it–in any era.

A Flea In Her Ear opens April 25 at the Goodman Theatre, 200 S. Columbus, and runs through May 21 (previews through April 24); tickets run $16-$27. For more information, call 443-3800.

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