Impotence, speech impediments, halitosis - Feydeau was as fascinated by physical impairment as any defect moral or mental. Yet while the audience is certainly encouraged to laugh at deficiency, the cruelty of the joke is typically weakened by the attitude of the disabled themselves. Whatever the handicap, Feydeau's clowns usually cavort in blissful unawareness of any shortcoming. And on the rare occasions when they recognize them, they impress, even amaze, by their utter lack of shame. In modern parlance, these folks have got the self-esteem thing down.
Small wonder, then, that IRT selected A Flea in Her Ear for its simultaneous English and Sign Language production, an entrancing evening that, despite sluggish pacing, proved to be quite memorable. It would be easy to put the blame for the foot-dragging on director Davis's concept, in which each speaking character was trailed closely by a "shadow", i.e. a signing doppelganger. The resultant staging sometimes resembled a cattle-call audition for Side Show replacements, until Davis stirred the pot, whereupon the voiceless signed to the vocal, utterers uttered to the unutterable, and a flea in one's ear began to seem like nothing by comparison.
The effect was dizzying, often stunning, but trade-offs were made. Lost from the evening was the "diabolical pace" crucial to any farce, especially one with over 250 entrances and exits (500 if you count the shadows). Still, certain performers clearly possessed the requisite supersonic intensity that, in time, others may learn to draft on.
Curiously, the master farceur in the cast, Aaron Bloom, turned out to be one of the shadows, though in name only. As the stock impotent husband wrongly accused of adultery, Bloom followed Matt Goldstein like a heat-seeking missile, bringing the latter's words to life with an acrobatic panache.
Nearly as impressive was Erin Kelley (another shadow!) as the jealous wife who (along with the acerbic Jackie Roth) set the plot spinning toward the Act Two collision, which takes place at a scuzzy hotel. (The Minet-Galant, a bonafide fleabag, was here translated as the "Pretty Pussy Inn," and if you think that sounds vulgar, you should see it in Sign Language.) The establishment should have contained several doors and a staircase, as well as that infamous push-button revolving bed. All were rendered somewhat crudely in Alexis Dennis's set design, but Julia Van Vliet's costumes helped clarify things. Puzzling also, but in a good way, were Garry Kay Casada as the dim-witted uncle of the hotel owner (Bob Harbaum/Frank Dattolo), and Debrah Waller as the proprietor's wife. Her rendition of "Begin the Beguine," completely uncalled for, nevertheless stopped the show by dint of sheer oddball bravado. (Other winning moments were provided by David Rosenberg, Doug Lockwood, Gerald Small, Sharon Port, PJ Saunders, Roy Arias and Marc Krinsky.)
On a metatheatrical level, one more set of performances, by Marc Garza and Andrew Jones, deserves mention. The duo was cast as Camille, a secretary with a cleft palate - Flea's designated defective. The IRT audience probably felt more guilty than most for laughing at Camille's dysphasic babbling, but the high-spirited Garza played it exactly right. Cheerfully oblivious to what some might term a deficiency, he (and the entire IRT ensemble) challenged us all to develop deficiencies of our own.
To become similarly blind, that is.
(Also featuring Amanda Kaplan, Vivian Lynn Hasbrouk, Ed Smit, James Fackler, Sean Lambert, Mimi Craig, Mark Wellen, Aaron Neptune.)
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Copyright 1997 Scott Vogel