Northlight Theatre

The Northlight Marriage of Figaro’s a pleasure. A classic satire, cunningly realized. The actors are marvelous. The design elements are gorgeous. Richard Nelson’s adaptation oozes playful elegance. And Beaumarchais’ 18th-century tale of sex and intrigue is a subversive masterpiece: a clownish, savage, delightful demonstration of how very personal–how downright intimate–the political can get.

Director Robert Berlinger’s style, furthermore, makes a perfect match for the material. Very much like Beaumarchais himself, Berlinger combines farce with class consciousness to produce a sort of Punch-and-Judy Brechtianism: flamboyant, funny, ribald, and angry.

This show’s got everything going for it.

But everything, evidently, isn’t enough for Berlinger. Even with an indisputably great script, a sharp adaptation, a company full of fine talents, and his own considerable wit to work from, Berlinger seems to lack confidence in his ability to make Figaro understood. Or, perhaps, in his audience’s ability to understand it. He therefore feels called upon to underline the play’s Big Ideas–to underline them, italicize them, and print them boldface–by tacking a couple of bizarre little explanatory vignettes on at the beginning and end of the play.

And those vignettes have got to be the most (unintentionally) ridiculous things you’ve ever seen. In the first, cast members skulk around, looking intense-to-tormented a la Marat/ Sade, striking poses, and reciting passages from The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. This is meant to convey the impression that what we’re about to see isn’t merely a sex comedy, but a Social Critique, with Important Connections to the French Revolution. In the second vignette, the cast skulks some more, forming social-realist tableaux and removing bits of their period costumes. This is an Alienation Device, meant both to destroy the theatrical illusion and to convey the impression that what we’ve just seen was indeed a Social Critique, with Important Implications for Contemporary Society.

Berlinger’s bookend addenda are not only silly and self-important–they’re superfluous. I’m willing to bet that even without the declamations and tableaux, Beaumarchais’ play would lead us inevitably to his sociopolitical point, his class critique. It’s simply there, in the premise. Figaro’s about a clever poor man in the service of an arrogant rich one. Everything flows from that essential inequity.

The poor man, Figaro, wants to marry his beloved Suzanne, but the rich one, Count Almaviva, wants to fuck her–as much to prove his proprietary right as to satisfy his lust. Figaro and Suzanne being his chattel, he figures he can violate their wishes, their love, their bodies, their pride any way he wants. And–given his money, his station, and his control of what little justice exists–he’s right. The poor man’s got nothing but wit and luck on his side.

That he wins anyway is a measure of Beaumarchais’ bourgeois optimism. That winning consists in his having to humor, con, and abase himself before a petty despot with no talent for anything but picking the right parents is a measure of Beaumarchais’ fundamental rage.

And that both the optimism and the rage are couched in an insipid little trinket of a plot, pieced together out of stock confusions and flimsy contrivances, is a measure of Beaumarchais’ absurd brilliance. Figaro’s oppression paradoxically becomes all the more painful for being so incredibly, so laughably dumb.

But Berlinger doesn’t see it that way. Or rather, he hasn’t the will to let us see it that way for ourselves. His vignettes come across as a surprisingly crude and condescending attempt to manage our perceptions. And the kicker is that, rather than enhance his Social Critique, they tend to trivialize it. As a comic character, Figaro comes near to archetype, recalling the Tricksters of Amerindian mythology. His problems have an almost cosmic resonance: they’re the way of the world. Framed by Berlinger’s bookends, he’s just a figure in a political diorama, illustrating some causes of the French Revolution.

Luckily, the vignettes represent only maybe 5 percent–albeit an important 5 percent–of the whole show. The middle 95 is wonderful. Quick, smart, fun. Kevin Gudahl’s a sophisticated Figaro: a formidable intelligence with formidable blind spots, especially where women are concerned. It’s interesting to follow his growth as he ceases to identify with Count Almaviva’s maleness and power, and starts identifying with women as fellow victims.

Peter Aylward makes an excellent foil for Gudahl, playing the Count as a dithering, rather likable asshole. Carolyn Blackinton manages to be attractively long-suffering, and also funny, as the Countess. Anyone who saw Hollis Resnick in Candlelight’s Little Shop of Horrors will recognize a lot of her cool/ditz moves here as Suzanne. But the familiarity’s not much of a problem, since the moves work.

As a Chicago actor of long standing, Larry McCauley’s also familiar. He seems, though, to have entered on a new phase of his career. As the pope in the Goodman Theatre’s Red Noses, and again as an eccentric music teacher here, McCauley’s established a strong, remarkably vivid and agile presence. His ease and resourcefulness onstage are wonderful to see.

There’s a sense of ease and resourcefulness about the whole production, really. One of the pleasures of Figaro lies in getting a toke off the fun being passed around among the ensemble. And even among the designers: Saralynne Crittenden’s generous bosom provides the occasion for an engineering triumph from costume designer Jessica Hahn. Jeff Bauer’s set, meanwhile, is a masterfully executed genre painting.

Even Berlinger’s vignettes have their attractions. If nothing else, it’s an education to hear some of the noble, republican assertions from The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen spoken out. Reminds you of things.

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