Court Theatre

at Chicago Center for the Performing Arts

Court Theatre’s second successful foray from its Hyde Park home to the north side includes a moment of sublime discovery amid the comic chaos of Scapin. About midway through the opening performance, trickster Scapin–whose cunning conspiracies keep the play moving–guides his fellow servant Silvestre in a fantasy of flight; the two men pretend to float off their feet, carried aloft by air currents under their extended arms. Dopey red-nosed clown Silvestre slowly realizes he’s flying, at least in his own mind; the jesters’ game of make-believe achieves its own reality as he looks down at the floor, imagining in terror and joy that he’s miles off the earth, free from the constant abuse he endures from his employer. Scapin, meanwhile, regards his comrade with bemused pleasure, not at the illusion of flight but at the sense of liberation he’s briefly instilled in his battered, beleaguered buddy.

I don’t know if this vignette takes place at every performance of Scapin. The script–adapted by playwrights Shelley Berc and Andrei Belgrader and composer Rusty Magee from Moliere’s farce Les fourberies de Scapin–is designed to accommodate the actors’ comic contributions, both planned and spontaneous. This superb show–directed by Christopher Bayes, a theater teacher at Juilliard, Yale, and New York University, and presented in conjunction with Seattle’s Intiman Theatre–shrewdly juxtaposes carefully rehearsed scenes with bursts of improvisation. That should be a drawing card in a city where improv is a hallmark. Scapin is indeed a masterpiece of its form, but audiences looking for a traditional “masterpiece theater” experience won’t find it here. For one thing, the piece was penned in prose, not the elegant rhymed couplets of Moliere’s Misanthrope.

Scapin is a showcase of physical comedy that expresses primal, unnuanced emotions. First performed in 1671 with Moliere himself in the title role, it draws on the Italian commedia dell’arte for its stock characters: masters, lovers, and zanni. The masters—-the pantaloon and the professor–are ill-tempered, pompous, miserly old men. The lovers are the masters’ fatuous, vain, impetuous, horny offspring. The zanni are the clown servants (whose name gives us the word “zany”). Their role is to aid the young lovers in their romantic rebellions, thus undermining the social and patriarchal authority represented by the masters.

Moliere hews close to the commedia formula. Argante, the pantaloon, arranges a marriage between his son Octave and the daughter of his neighbor Geronte; but Octave has secretly married another girl, Hyacinte, and now fears his father’s wrath. Meanwhile Geronte’s son Leandre has fallen in love with Zerbinette, a Gypsy whose family will release her only if Leandre pays them a hefty ransom. It’s up to the zanni–Leandre’s valet Scapin and Octave’s manservant Silvestre–to help the boys outwit their dads and claim the women they love. But Scapin, who’s excited by others’ suffering, also schemes to bilk Argante and Geronte of their fortunes and to inflict a brutal beating on the stodgy Geronte.

This unabashedly ridiculous scenario is a framework for extended comic passages that sometimes further the action but just as often interrupt it with the performers’ playful inventions. Each character has his or her stockpile of lazzi–what we call shtick. Octave’s lazzo is his propensity for breaking into song at the drop of a hat–the perfect excuse for singer-dancer Chester Gregory to show off his soulful vocals and Jackie Wilson/Michael Jackson moves. Chaon Cross’s interpretation of ditzy blond Hyacinte’s trademark–a shrill, nasal giggle–suggests All in the Family’s Sally Struthers on speed. Allen Gilmore’s Argante–the perfect pantaloon with his sputtering speech, hook-nosed mask, humpback, and flowing black cloak–occasionally lets his pose of paternal propriety slip, breaking into a tap dance or blues song. David Silverman’s Geronte, outfitted with a Cyrano-meets-Jimmy Durante schnozz, is master of the slow burn and the slow-motion temper tantrum, while Ned Noyes plays Leandre as a gape-mouthed idiot. Kimberly Hebert-Gregory’s Zerbinette has the audience in stitches with her sexy flirtatiousness and her hyperventilating fit of laughter. Gangly, grinning Sean Fortunato is endearing as Silvestre, radiating childish sweetness even as he flashes his backside to celebrate how Scapin saved his ass. The musicians take their turn in the spotlight too: keyboardist Jeff Caldwell dons drag as Hyacinte’s plump, hysteria-prone nurse Nerine, and saxophonist-accordionist-banjo player-singing messenger Matthew Krause is an outrageous ambassador from the Ministry of Silly Walks.

In contrast to all this extroverted tomfoolery is Jeremy Shamos’s laid-back, enigmatic Scapin–chameleonic con man, champion of true love, and avenger of the working class. Sly and smug, he’s “a virtuoso in love with his virtuosity” and thus a projection of Moliere’s own self-image (as translator Donald Frame notes in his edition of the original). This Scapin’s bemused detachment from the madness he masterminds hints at a dark underside to his compulsive mischief making. His most extended routine reveals a taste for malice: he convinces Geronte to hide in a sack from a make-believe enemy, then relentlessly wallops the sack and the old man with a stick. It’s obvious to the audience that no one is getting hurt–the stick is a slapstick–but the scene (protested by critics even in Moliere’s day) stands out for its cruelty in a production punctuated by pokes and punches. This rowdy, exaggerated violence–familiar from Bugs Bunny cartoons and Three Stooges shorts–is accompanied by a fluid, infantile eroticism that’s never overtly obscene but expresses a subversive polymorphous sexuality. (At one point Octave and Hyacinte beg Scapin for help by stroking his legs suggestively–a persuasive device repeated later by Octave and Leandre.) Scapin also has moments of rare beauty, such as the flight episode; much of the show’s enormous appeal lies in its juxtaposition of gracefulness and vulgarity.

Finally, however, Scapin is an exuberant exercise in escapism. Adding to the pleasure are a charmingly simple set by Michael Sommers, gorgeous commedia costumes by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward, and musical selections ranging in style from gospel and bluegrass to vaudeville and rap (along with a snippet of “Trouble” from The Music Man for good measure). But like the original theatrical form, this is primarily an actors’ showcase. “Commedia dell’arte” means “comedy of skill,” which Scapin displays at a very high level indeed.

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