BWW Reviews: Constellation Pulls Out the Stops with SCAPIN Thru 2/16

BWW Reviews: Constellation Pulls Out the Stops with SCAPIN Thru 2/16

OK, so the snow is wreaking havoc in the neighborhood and we are now staring into the maw of Another Arctic Plague of Hollywood Proportions, to believe all the blazered weather forecasters I've been seeing lately. It's cold, slippery, and we hope you like white because the Almighty Landscape Designer has decreed it's all you're gonna see for a while. So what do we do, run for our lives? No can do; airport's closed; and don't even think of driving the interstates. Booze in the pantry is a plus, but getting plastered alone at home has only a limited charm (for most of us, at least. I assume.)

OK, OK--Back to the review now. (Ahem.)

For a really good time, call (erm, that didn't come out right; let's try it again, shall we?)

-"Scapin Review, Take 3 (**clack**)-aaaaannnd ... Action!" -

Back in the 80's when you, dear reader, weren't even a gleam in the old man's eyes (and when your mom had better things to do with her time than date him) we had a brilliant theatre movement called the New Vaudevillians. Trained in clowning and other forms of physical comedy, they stood out from the improv/stand-up crowd by the fact that they almost never spoke; but they could leave you in stitches just trying to walk across the stage (which they rarely managed to do). Tall, lanky, and hopelessly rubbery Bill Irwin was one of the most famous of the New Vaudevillians; he toured the country with little more than a piano accompanist and a hilarious bag of tricks. A big part of the act was blowing the "fourth wall" between stage and audience to smithereens, accompanied by long stretches of cheesy old-time music. Apparently, Irwin has since learned how to talk-witness his Tony award for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-but more importantly, he has found new ways to exercise his comic instincts, adapting classic comedies for the stage.

Thanks to the brilliant work of Constellation Theatre, Irwin's talent and irreverent spirit are alive and well in their current production of Scapin, his adaptation of Moliere's Les Fourberies de Scapin ("Scapin's Tricks"). No, it's not one of those moldy old comedies where you try to laugh like your distinguished ancestors might have laughed back in the day-c'mon, this is Constellation we're talking about here! It works because the production rocks, but also because the original author Moliere stole some of the best material from his stage-mates in the Italian Commedia dell' Arte, who were standup before there was standup, and whose sight gags and stock characters laid the foundation for every sitcom you love today.

The only sign that Scapin is old-fashioned is that the characters come from the 1600's: you've got a clever servant-Scapin, played with sleazy, no-holds-barred charm by Michael Glenn-who devotes his time to helping out the son of his dim-witted old master. In Commedia-land, rich old masters are always a brick or two short of a load, and their sons (think: Labrador Retriever) have yet even to find the first brick. The sons, of course, fall in love with gorgeous women who in our day would have gone on to get Ph.D's in Biochem, but this being the 1600's they decide instead to shack up with rich idiots (it's a living, what can I say).

As with so many young lovers on-stage there are huuuuuge obstacles to the sons getting married to the women of their choice; the job of Scapin, and the job of his fellow-servant Sylvestre (the amazingly protean Bradley Foster Smith) is of course to con the old men into letting the young lovers get hitched. By any comedic means necessary. This being a comedy-spoiler alert, sorta-the young ones do indeed get married. But that's hardly the point, is it? The joy of Constellation's Scapin is that each member of the cast gets to show off their inimitable comedic talents, and you realize early on that the lame plot is basically an excuse for everyone to take turns making you laugh your tuckus off.

(That's tuckus, pronounced with a kinda "ch" sound ... No, it's not French ... Hey, you're online, Bozo, look it up yourself ... copy and paste, yeah, open that new window up there, I can wait ...)

Director Kathryn Chase Bryer has assembled a great comic ensemble and has made great use of the intimate Source Warehouse space, with more action packed into that small stage (and sundry passage ways) than I would have thought humanly possible. Matthew McGee is clueless (I mean that in a nice way) as Octave, in love with the supposedly penniless waif Hyacinth (played by Megan Dominy, who milks us like we were a prize cow). This is the couple that Scapin (Michael Glenn, with 2 n's in case you're counting) has to help to get married. The other couple consists of the boy Leander, played with geeky charm by Manu Kumasi, and his hyper-exotic 'Gypsy' girlfriend Zerbinette (Nora Achrati. Here, words really do fail me, she's that good). Meanwhile, a voluptuous servant Nerine lugs on her suitcases, looking for a man whose true identity she doesn't know yet; Vanessa Bradchulis makes the most of this tiny part, which involves making the traffic-all of it-stop every time she breezes through.

Sylvestre, performed by Constellation newcomer Bradley Foster Smith, is Leander's servant; this role is an actor's dream, not least because Sylvestre has a classic Italian-style "mad scene" where he channels a wide variety of Hollywood superstars, sampling liberally from the most famous one-liners of the silver screen. Sylvestre's monologue is a reminder that the concept of shamelessly sampling from pop culture didn't start with the DJ at your local rave, it started with the Commedia and their irrepressible desire to show off their acting chops (plus, they performed tragedy and comedy on alternate days).

Playing the old men/obstacle roles in Scapin can look like a thankless task, because on paper your job is to make it almost impossible for your sons to marry. But in the hands of Carlos Salda?a (as Argante, Octave's dad) and Constellation stalwart Ashley Ivey (as Geronte, Leander's father) we get some truly delicious comic moments; with Salda?a's absurdly thick accent and Ivey's doddering, these full-of-themselves fools are a show in themselves.

A. J. Guban has created a colorful playground, with planking depicting cityscapes on the back wall, stairs every which way, joke banners unfurling and a water fountain center stage that seems to have a mind of its own. The floor lights, moreover, give the whole place the feel of a cock-eyed pinball machine, which fits given the antics of the cast. Kendra Rai, assisted by Courtney Leigh Wood, has created a truly delightful array of costumes, with the day-glo tackiness and skinny jeans reserved for the silliest in the cast, and truly miraculous make-up stylings for each character. Kelly King and Matthew R. Wilson manage the often-intricate movements, dances and fights nicely, and Travis Charles Ploeger punctuates the action with piano and electronic keyboard, matching Smith's dialogue samples with musical samples from all over the map.

Photo, from Left to Right: Matthew McGee as Octave, Michael Glenn as Scapin and Bradley Foster Smith as Sylvestre. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Running Time: 2+ hours

Performances are January 16-February 16 at the Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW, Washington DC.

Tickets can be ordered by calling 1-800-494-8497, or at:

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Andrew White Choricius is the nom-du-web of a theater artist who has been involved in the Washington, D.C. scene in various capacities -- as actor, playwright, director, dramaturg -- for a number of years. Credits include Source, Woolly Mammoth and Le Neon Theatre. As a cultural historian and veteran of the Fulbright Program, he has devoted years of research to the performing arts of the Later Roman Empire (aka-Byzantium). In this bookish role he has translated, performed and published a variety of works from Medieval Greek. He holds a Ph.D. in Theater History, Theory and Criticism, and will soon be publishing his first full-length study on theater and ritual in Byzantium through a major university press in the UK. A Professor of Humanities, he currently teaches World Literature and World History in the greater Washington, D.C. area.

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