Set in 18th-century Spain, Beaumarchais's 1784 comedy deals with social antagonisms between classes and romantic jealosies within them to charming effect. In its original form, its humor was so biting and caustic that it was banned by Emperor Joseph II of Austria.
The plot is far too labyrinthine to condense here. Suffice it to say that it concerns the irrepressible manservant Figaro trying to outwit his priggish lord, Count Almaviva, who has lustful designs on Figaro's fiancée, Suzanna.
Along the way, the play takes swipes at the manners of the nobility, the intrigue of politics, and censorship.
The work hasn't been staged in New York since Andrei Serban's hyper-eccentric mounting at the Circle in the Square in 1985. Michael Martorano's adaptation jettisons a good deal (though by no means all) of the social commentary and focuses instead on the multiple games of courtship and seduction. While this cutting takes some of the edge off the text, it nonetheless remains true to its emotional soul and provides a rich basis for this sterling production.
Co-directors Mann and DeVita parsimoniously established emotional connections between characters and once again made their shoebox-sized stage seem at least three times its actual size. The Count's castle in Seville, as well as the cherry grove used for a trysting place outside it, were remarkably realized using deceptively simple blocking and Ian Bentson's extraordinary talents as a lighting designer. Mann's costume designs were also of high caliber, reflecting period and character in equal measure.
In the title role of his own adaptation, Martorano was a human rapier. Deftly outmaneuvering his employer/nemesis, he exuded both a facile cunning and a mordant wit, both wed to a warmly expansive humanity. As Suzanne, Carolyn Ledwith displayed the same sly, understated guile that marked her previous Westside Rep outing as Emily in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (playing opposite Martorano's Valmont; were they married, these two could prove to be the Tandy and Cronyn of Off-Off-Broadway).
As the two-timed Countess, Joan Baker had a genuinely arresting vocal authority, expressing a natural aristocratic veneer without occluding the vulnerable heart beating beneath it.
Lighting designer Benton played the Count with the requisite comically imperious bearing, but also imparted a formidible will that made him a worthy adversary for Figaro.
Also memorable was Humberto Gettys's rather funny, over-the-top turn as the drunken castle gardener and Suzanne's uncle. Frank Nicolo's well-spoken Machiavellian doctor earned his fair share of laughs, as well.
There were a few misfires in performance. Barbara Zaid did nothing with the thankless role of Fanchette, Antonio's daughter. Keitha Gray was quite stiff as Marcellina, a housekeeper pursuing a reluctant Figaro. And Laura Bach missed the mark as the boy page Cherubino, not nearly androgynous enough for the part. (I realize it is a time-honored convention to cast this part with a woman. But, in a house this small, it's a lot dicier a prospect.)
This is a solidly entertaining mounting of a neglected gem, well-worth your time and money. With their production last season of The Barber of Seville and this staging, one can only look forward to the Westside Rep's incarnation next season of La Mère Coupable, the third in Beaumarchais's "Figaro" trilogy.
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Copyright 1997 John Michael Koroly