Saturday, November 5, 2011

Another Year, Another "Ear"

Georges Feydeau's "A Flea in Her Ear" is very popular with college theater departments. Very. ISU's current production marks my third time seeing this show at a college in the last five years. ISU last performed it in 2001, according to their production history page. I saw that one, too, in the old Allen Theatre, before it was subsumed into what is now Westhoff. All of that means, for me, that "A Flea in Her Ear" is getting a little fusty.

Don't get me wrong -- the second act of this fizzy French farce is knock-down, drag-out hilarious, complete with all the door-slamming and people-trying-to-have-sex-but-not you expect in a farce, plus some crazy linguistic humor that gives actors free reign to go way over the top, and the physical comedy of a prosperous man and his low-down alcoholic double being mistaken for each other.

Still... I yearn for something different. For "A Little Hotel on the Side," instead. Or Molière (as long as it's not "Tartuffe," another one that gets done way too often.) Or more Ayckbourn. ISU did "Taking Steps" in 2004 and U of I had a little Ayckbourn thing going in the mid-90s, producing "How the Other Half Loves," "Taking Steps," "Season's Greetings" and "Henceforward," as I recall. That still leaves 70 plays. Plus there's Cocteau's "Indiscretions" (AKA "Les Parents Terribles") which is French and bourgeois but has a darker, nastier edge. Or even "Noises Off," the British back-stage farce. Why not?

But I'm way off the subject of the oft-produced "A Flea in Her Ear." Which, you will recall, is a funny play. Especially in the second act. In contrast, the first and third acts are more talky, requiring a certain blithe insouciance, the patina of Parisian boulevard society around 1900, and a whole lot of speed. All of that is difficult for college-age actors to accomplish at the same time.

The current ISU production of "A Flea in Her Ear," directed by Don LaCasse, nicely manages the speed and the physical humor in the second act, but could definitely use a lighter, fizzier tone in the first and third. There's a lot of exposition there, and it gets a bit bogged down. Plus the madcap doppelganger confusion seems to take too long to get sorted out in the end, no matter how game or energetic Mitchell Conti, who plays both the role of prosperous Monsieur Chandebise and hotel porter Poche, continues to be. He gets kicked around, has to do quick-change shtick in and out of a terrible green uniform, runs up and down stairs, is generally abused and debased, and keeps on popping up, fresh as a daisy. I'm betting Conti is exhausted and bruised by the end of the night. (As a side-note, he's also the reason I thought of "Noises Off" and its staircase humor. If Conti hasn't already played Garry Lejeune, I'd bet it's in his future.)

Along with Conti/Chandebise/Poche and his antic tricks, the goofy "foreigner" comedy from hot-blooded Don Carlos Homenides de Histangua, a jealous Spaniard played here by Tommy Malouf, and "Herr Schwartz," a hot-to-trot Prussian* staying at the sleazy hotel where all the Act II action takes place, played for ISU by Jason Raymer, garners the most laughs. Well, that and the revolving bed, also in Act II, that never fails to provoke laughter.

Along with Conti, Malouf and Raymer, Brian Garvens stands out, doing excellent work establishing the proper note of slick impropriety. He's clearly the best at the boulevard style.

Eric J. Moslow's yellow-and-brown drawing room set definitely creates a middle-class mood and offers plenty of doors, while his hotel, with its lovely staircase and clustered bedrooms, goes with a different, trashier feel. Sandy Childers' costume design puts stylish Paul Poiret looks in vivid colors on the fashionable ladies, dialing down to a bit more Toulouse-Lautrec feel for the demimonde.

One note: I didn't see the name of the translator anywhere in the program. I have a vague feeling that LaCasse is using the recent David Ives version of the play, and if anyone reading this can confirm or correct that, feel free to jump in.

*This role was originally written as an unflattering stereotype of the English named Rugby, but English translations of the play have commonly made him Prussian, as in this one, although I seem to recall he was Japanese in the Rex Harrison movie. The "Herr Schwartz" moniker showed up first in a 1967 British TV version, as far as I can tell.

Mitchell Conti plays lowly Poche (L) and middle-class Chandebise (R)
with Becky Miller as Madame Chandebise, in ISU's "A Flea in Her Ear."

A FLEA IN HER EAR
By Georges Feydeau

Center for the Performing Arts
Illinois State University

Director: Don LaCasse
Scenic Designer: Eric J. Moslow
Costume Designer: Sandy Childers
Lighting Designer: Grace Maberg

Hair and Makeup Designer: Mark Spain
Voice and Dialect Directors: Lori Adams and Connie de Veer
Movement Director: Paul Dennhardt
Stage Manager: Casey L. Peek

Cast: Christopher Bush, Nina Ganet, Johnny Oleksinski, Tony Pellegrino, Clayton Joyner, Becky Miller, Mitchell Conti, Brian Garvens, Tommy Malouf, Trace Gamache, Luke Simone, Paula Nowak, Dustin Rothbart, Jason Raymer, Julia Besch, Torrence Gardner, Lauren Partch and Nicholas Wages.

Remaining performances: November 5, 9, 10, 11 and 12 at 7:30 pm and November 6 at 2 pm.

Running time: 2:50, including two 10-minute intermissions.

For tickets, you may call the CPA box office at 309-438-2535 or visit www.ticketmaster.com to order online.

6 comments:

  1. Fascinating report, Julie. I'm fond of "A Flea in Her Ear" too, though as you say there's tons of other Feydeau. (I seem to remember that a year or two ago, you and I tried to sort out his various plays, most of them with a different English title in each new translation.)

    I do have a special soft spot for "A Flea in Her Ear" because it brought light into my life at a moment when I most needed it. I had been in army boot camp for a week and was feeling as miserable and alone as I ever have in my life. And then it turned out that we got recreational time on Saturday afternoon. We had the choice of playing football in a nearby field, or being taken to a movie in a nearby quonset hut. We were told that the flick was "A Fly in the Hand... supposed to be funny, or sumpin." I went, and it turned out to be this arch French farce, and I probably the only guy who enjoyed it.

    I still think it has an undeservedly poor reputation. It was directed by Jacques Charon of the Comedie-Française, and he was maybe ordered to give it more "action," so we get more frenzied running-around than the story needs (I don't mean in the hotel -- in the drawing-room scenes). But Rex Harrison, even if overaged for the husband, is always a master of high comedy, and Rosemary Harris is delightful as the wife; it's just about her only movie role in her ingenue years when she should have been making a lot of movies. I wish it would come out on DVD or at least streaming video.

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  2. Your memory of "A Flea" in the army is lovely, Jon. I can completely understand. Although I never had boot camp to mentally escape from, but I think Fred and Ginger movies probably served the same role for me as a child.

    My problem is, I think, that the only "Fleas" I've seen live are these college ones, where frantic so often supplants finesse, if you know what I mean. The second act is funny, anyway, but I and III suffer if it isn't sailing along. Rather than slapping at the water to try to make waves.

    I do recall some things about the Rex Harrison film version (Louis Jourdan, specifically, who I think is charming in the role) but not a whole lot. I didn't know the movie had a poor reputation. I think the TV version, from the year before, is well thought of. (Anthony Hopkins is the butler, and Geraldine McEwen is Raymonde.) The movie must've been on TV on Dialing for Dollars or something, or I wouldn't remember Louis Jourdan. He's doing pretty much the Gigi thing again (suave, slippery, pretty) but he does it so well.

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  3. Coincidentally, the one time I saw Louis Jourdan onstage was in a Feydeau play, "13 Rue de l'Amour" (originally "Monsieur Chasse!"), doing much the same thing. It was on a spring-break week in NYC in 1978, and I wanted to see something fun and light that night. It was the third and last of his Bway appearances, and also in the cast were Patricia Elliott, Bernard Fox, and the great Kathleen Freeman.

    The movie pretty much got slammed when it came out, and as sometimes happened Pauline Kael was the most sensible (she dealt with it quickly in a paragraph). She disputed the other reviewers' pat formulations that this kind of farce is incompatible with the screen format. She said it has been done well onscreen many times, gave examples, and just regretted that it didn't work out this time. But added "I hope it won't discourage other attempts to bring us the pleasures of this genre, or discourage Rosemary Harris, who is charming in it, from other screen roles." (I have total recall on the weirdest things.)

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  4. I really feel the need to revisit the movie, and share your hope that it shows up on video or DVD. I do think farce can be done on film. I'd like to compare/contrast to that BBC one that people seemed to like better from 1967.

    On the issue of figuring out which play was which when matching up the various English titles, I wonder if we were doing that the last time I saw "A Flea in Her Ear"? Or was it a movie?

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  5. The David Ives adaptation is hysterically funny and witty but plays hard and fast with what Feydeau actually wrote. This production used the much more bland John Mortimer script, which acts more as a literary translation. This translation dates back to 1966.

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  6. Thanks for the information, Anonymous! That explains why it felt so talky in Acts I and III. I should know better than to think David Ives would do that.

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