(see video clip below)
Bill Irwin (left) and Jud Williford in ACT’s “Scapin”
Photo by Kevin Berne
Send in the clowns! Plays about wily servants who outsmart their masters were all the rage in Europe a couple hundred years ago. Beaumarchais’ Figaro instantly comes to mind, the central figure in a trilogy so incendiary that it was banned by aristocrats fearing the French Revolution already looming on the horizon. But a hundred years before Figaro there was “Scapin.” These plays – and dozens more like them – grew out of the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition. The clever barber Figaro may have gone on to greater fame, operatically aided by Rossini and Mozart. But “Scapin” is funnier. So funny, in fact, that anyone lucky enough to live in the Bay Area would be a fool to miss it.
Foolery is what the adaptation by Bill Irwin and Mark O’Donnell is about: old fools hanging desperately onto their money and young fools in love and in love with themselves. Updated with regard to language and focused on clowning (Irwin was a Ringling Bros.-trained clown with San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus long before he was a Tony Award-winning actor), the two-hour laugh riot, already extended twice at American Conservatory Theater, mixes elements of vaudeville and circus into Molière’s story, updating it with some side-splitting contemporary references. (One character, amazed at Scapin’s supposed clairvoyant powers, exclaims: “You actually entered my dream?” Scapin replies: “Yes, but only on the first level.”)
Irwin is a wonder in the title role. His body seems to be made of rubber and he can dance and juggle to boot. His baggy pants and bowler remind you of Charlie Chaplin, but this guy is anything but silent. As he sets about tricking the rich fathers of two young lovers into parting with the cash that will allow them to marry their girls, he is a study in the subtle (and often, not-so-subtle) art of the con. And, in spite of a wicked mean streak you’ve got to love him. But he’s not the only one. Jud Williford, fresh from playing Macbeth at Cal Shakes, does a complete turnaround as Sylvestre, Scapin’s fellow-servant. He is hilarious as a mime and hysterical as a thug and, when he and Irwin dance “The Schemer’s Boogie,” you want to join right in.
Irwin’s old clowning partner Geoff Hoyle also is on board as Geronte, one of the fathers, and ACT regular Steven Anthony Jones is the other, the pompous, lecherous Argante. Another ACT core actor, Gregory Wallace, has never been as good as he is as Octave, Argante’s slightly effete and extremely stupid son. Patrick Lane postures nicely as Geronte’s son, Leander, raising a laugh merely at his swaggering entrance, all leather and sword, kind of a 17th-century punk (wonderful costumes by Beaver Bauer). Even the two gendarmes who periodically dance across the stage in stony silence are funny. Not to slight the women: René Augesen’s sexy gypsy is a hoot and Ashley Wickett is adorable as Octave’s beloved Hyacinth (or Hydrangea or Hyperbole or whatever anybody chooses to call her because nobody can remember her name). Even Omozé Idehenre, in the smaller role of Hyacinth’s servant, gets her comic licks in. They are a true ensemble and Irwin has generously directed them to best advantage. It all takes place in Erik Flatmo’s clean, attractive city street, flanked by the houses of Argante and Geronte. Two musicians, Keith Terry on percussion and organist Randy Craig (who both also composed the incidental music for the show), add to the fun and occasionally interact with the other performers (Terry’s tap dance with Irwin at the beginning of Act II is a highlight). There is a bit of audience participation as well.
Irwin and his fellow-adapter Mark O’Donnell may have taken liberties with Molière but, then again, Molière took liberties with commedia dell’arte–which, in turn, took its cues from the Roman Plautus. There is, after all, nothing new under the sun and it is not necessary for comedy to be wholly original. In fact, comedy benefits from its own history. What is necessary is that comedy be funny. And this one sure is.