The frailties of human nature were meat and drink to Moliere. His comedies live on because they so cleverly skewered hypocrisy, pretentiousness and ego-driven stupidity, and his sense of the absurd is just as relevant now as it ever was. This year the Colorado Shakespeare Festival is offering The Would-Be Gentleman along with the usual Avon products. And despite a rocky first act, the ghastly acoustics of the Mary Ripoff and the purgatorial portable seat backs, the show is worth a look-see.
This production's chief asset is Charles Hallahan, the star of stage, screen and television who takes the title role. An immensely talented actor with impeccable timing and his own sense of the absurd, he makes Monsieur Jourdain one of the most lovable fools we've seen in a long time. It is Hallahan's adaptation of the maestro's play that the CSF has chosen to stage, and what it lacks in poetry it makes up in brash hilarity.
Monsieur Jourdain has made a fortune as a tradesman and now wishes to elevate himself socially. In fact, he aspires to the aristocracy and has hired a variety of aesthetic parasites to teach him how to be a gentleman. He is so vulgar that nothing the refined can teach him actually sinks in, but since he's paying for his lessons, the members of the cultural elite don't mind playing along. As the show opens, Monsieur Jourdain's hirelings discuss his generosity and then argue about who among them represents the most important of the arts--music, dancing, philosophy or fencing. The music and dancing masters are the most eloquent as they demonstrate how all the chaos of the world is directly attributable to a lack of training in music and dance (someone ought to try out these arguments on Jesse Helms).
Jourdain's social-climbing ambitions have made him blind to the manipulations of others. A roguish nobleman borrows money and then pretends to woo a lovely countess on Jourdain's behalf when he's actually making time with her himself. Meanwhile, Madame Jourdain, who suspects her husband of more than social climbing, plots to marry their daughter Lucille to the handsome--but very middle-class--Cleonte, against Jourdain's will. The show really kicks into high gear when Cleonte's servant, Covielle, cooks up a plot against Jourdain involving a band of implausible "Turks."
Hallahan makes Jourdain as full of himself as an egg. He's incapable of self-knowledge and so easily flattered and gullible that he makes an ass of himself with flamboyant abandon. It's a richly amusing performance that snags the conscience, reminding us how easy it is to be foolish when one's desires exceed one's grasp.
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The show's other great asset is Tom Fiscella as the wily Covielle. Fiscella projects self-pity and mischievous intelligence with equal grace, and every time he's on stage, the energy level rises a notch. Ethelyn Friend makes a charming shrew as Madame Jourdain, Roxanne Raja is a darling Lucille, and Christine Jugueta as the maid, Nicole, is full of bounce and spice.
There's a good supporting cast as well, though the night I saw the show, a few of the secondary actors lost focus in the first act. Some small details needed better attention--household tasks need to be treated like real business, even in a stylized show like this one. And bringing members of the audience up on stage and dancing with them down the aisles is more embarrassing than charming.
This is not a handsome show--the set is a trifle too cartoon-like for the Rippon and the costumes messy and ill-matched. Still, director Roger Hendricks Simon has an eye for extravagant goofiness and keeps the pros and semi-pros in his cast moving a mile a minute. And what stays with the viewer after the houselights come up is what Moliere would have wished--an abiding conviction that however foolish humankind may be, humor is the antidote to madness.
The Would-Be Gentleman, through August 17 at the Mary Rippon Theatre, on the CU-Boulder campus, 492-0543.