That Scamp Scapin

16. October, 2010 Theater No comments

If there’s one thing that drives me up the wall, it’s slapstick. I’m not talking about physical comedy onstage or onscreen—that stuff’s great, at least when done well. What I can’t stand is when slapstick happens in real life, when inanimate objects can’t commit to being inanimate and start falling and flying all over the place. When the world seems to be working at cross-purposes with you—or what Sartre called the “coefficient of adversity”—that’s when things get frustrating.

Bill Irwin and Geoff Hoyle in Scapin. Photo by Kevin Berne.

It hasn’t involved a lot of pratfalls, but the coefficient of adversity has been working overtime lately. Just a lot of little, non-slapsticky reminders that we control a lot of things, but we don’t control the world (and which have led to this writeup being posted much later than I intended).  One of the more minor mishaps was that I was supposed to see Bill Irwin’s adaptation of Molière’s Scapin at ACT the Sunday before I actually did. But I hadn’t accounted for the Folsom Street Fair, or else I’d never had driven over from the East Bay. Despite having left myself what would normally be more than enough time to park, grab a quick lunch and go to the show, at curtain time I was still caught in crawling downtown traffic.

I finally caught up with Scapin at a Saturday matinee, only to find that was the one performance costar Jud Williford wasn’t scheduled to go on. It was a shame because Williford is a terrifically versatile actor who seems to get better and better and who I heard is terrific in this show, so I would have loved to see what he did with the role of the titular Scapin’s fellow servant and sidekick.

But man, was it great to see Bill Irwin again. When I was a kid in the 1970s, every summer I’d love to go see the Pickle Family Circus, back when Irwin and Geoff Hoyle were both clowns in the company. Now a two-time Tony winner for his clown show Fool Moon and his star turn in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Irwin’s been off in New York a long time. So it’s a treat to have him back in the Bay Area with the Molière adaptation that he cowrote (with Mark O’Donnell), directed and stars in–just as the original author did in the 17th century.  Better still, the show reunites Irwin with his old clowning cohort Hoyle as his skinflint employer.

A familiar commedia dell’arte type, the character Scapin is a shifty servant who’s always pulling a fast one on someone or other. His master Géronte and neighbor Argante have arranged marriages for their children, but both their sons are in love with other women and for various reasons need large sums of money in order to marry them. So Scapin and Argante’s servant Silvestre scheme to scam the rich tightwad fathers into coughing up the money the sons need.  It’s a tangled, confusing plot that doesn’t become much clearer when you see it, but its so much fun that it’s hard to mind it being a bit muddled.

Reminiscent of Donald Eastman’s set for the 2006 ACT production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals, Erik Flatmo’s handsome period street scenery of two three-story houses gets a workout in this production, with characters disappearing from an upper-story window and walking out the front door a moment later, or signs rolling out from the walls to announce exposition or unbelievable coincidences. Everything is accompanied by a stylistically varied and fully fleshed-out score by fellow ex-Pickle Randall Craig on keyboards and percussionist Keith Terry, who had a two-man slapstick show with Hoyle at Berkeley Rep some years back called, appropriately enough, Geoff Hoyle Meets Keith Terry.

ACT core company member Gregory Wallace is well in his comedic element as Octave, a plaintive blowhard and self-styled romantic in a flamboyant purple cape (the delightful period costumes are by Beaver Bauer). Speaking sonorously and carrying a big staff, Steven Anthony Jones makes a formidable if easily hoodwinked patriarch as Octave’s father Argante. ACT MFA student Ashley Wickett sparkles as melodramatically mournful ingénue Hyacinth, for whom Octave so floridly (and usually churlishly) declares his love that no one can get a word in edgewise. Recent MFA grad Omozé Idehenre wanders the stage like a sad lost lamb as Hyacinth’s lady in waiting, Nerine, hauling her baggage and asking around for a guy nobody’s heard of.

MFA student Patrick Lane is suitably imposing as Leander, Scapin’s hot-headed young master who’s quick to draw his sword.  Core company member René Augesen is a blowsy Zerbinette, a bawdy Gypsy wench with a boorish laugh and a cougarish love interest for Leander.  Keith Pinto and Ben Johnson prowl across the stage in silent unison as two soldiers on patrol.

Hoyle is hilarious as Leander’s hunched-over, pinch-faced and thick-headed father Geronte, who keeps harping on the same points over and over again and somehow it’s funnier every time he does it. The way he and Irwin play off each other is a delight. Understudy and MFA student Richardson Jones acquits himself fairly well as Sylvestre, but he’s clearly just along for the ride while following Scapin’s lead. Jones does shine, however, in one priceless over-the-top scene while posing as Hyacinth’s psychotic brother to terrify Argante into loosening his wallet to save his skin.

Irwin is a marvel as Scapin, who may be a shady character but is so darn likeable that you’d no more disapprove of his deceptions than you would condemn a stage magician for misdirection. Even when he tricks Geronte into a sack and beats him mercilessly, it’s all in good fun, and you never want Scapin to get his comeuppance. He’s the Bugs Bunny of the commedia set.

It helps that he lures the audience in as a coconspirator from the start, often breaking the fourth wall to talk to the crowd or the musicians, who for some reason he calls George and Fred. He cracks winking jokes about ACT subscribers, gay marriage, Inception and anti-Muslim hysteria and fills his adaptation with winning shtick from a floppy-limbed dance he calls the “schemer’s boogie” to a running gag about not being able to remember the ladies’ names: Hibiscus? Hyperbole? Zamboni? He pretends to be psychic while Sylvestre signals things to him in charades and constantly runs rings around everyone both verbally and physically, teasing Argante about his romantic escapades, “they say when you chased them, they stayed chaste.” By the time a gratuitous chase scene comes around long after there’s anything to run about, Irwin has made us so comfortable with comedy that calls attention to its familiar tropes even as it indulges them that we can do nothing but enjoy the ritual and not worry about how well it fits. Sure, he’s pulling a fast one on us, but he does it so darned well, and in doing so he makes it easy to forget for a moment whatever worries we walked in with.

Through October 23
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #101 of 2010, attended October 2.

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