Angela Pierce, John Hutton and Kathleen McCall in    
    A Flea in Her Ear.
Angela Pierce, John Hutton and Kathleen McCall in A Flea in Her Ear.

Love's Labors

It's amazing, really, the amount of sheer hard work and the level of perfectionism required to keep this bright bouncing balloon of a farce aloft. You get Scott Weldin's sets -- an elegant, intricate bourgeois living room in shades of beige, complete with patterned wallpaper, crystal chandelier and three oval mirrors, and then, after the intermission, the worn, disheveled, blue-carpeted warmth of that house of sin, the Hotel Coq D'Or, with its polar bear rug, round, revolving bed and clutter of figurines, vases and pictures. Add the work done by director Kent Thompson and his cast on blocking, timing and coordinated action -- never mind such minor elements as characterization and line delivery. These elements are supported by Craig Breitenbach's chipper sound design and Susan Branch's costumes, which are sometimes beautifully flattering and sometimes utterly absurd. And all this activity has been set in motion for one purpose only: to make you laugh.

Not that the hijinks would come to anything without the volatile cleverness of Georges Feydeau's 1906 script in John Mortimer's juicily sardonic translation.

The plot of A Flea in Her Ear concerns Victor Emmanuel Chandebise, a solid householder whose inability to perform in bed causes him to avoid his wife, Raymonde. She becomes convinced that he is having an affair. It's something she herself intends to do with the suave Romain Tournel, but when a woman cheats, she reasons, it really isn't the same thing, and besides, she can't do it while Victor is causing her so much distress. Enlisting the help of a friend, Lucienne, from her convent days (really!), Raymonde sets a trap for her husband. "It's a trick I've seen in plays," she observes. The trick involves an unsigned, perfume-soused note written by Lucienne, and the Hotel Coq D'Or. But Lucienne's husband, Carlos Homenides de Histangua, has a murderously jealous temperament and he knows his wife's handwriting. And Victor, receiving the note, believes it must really be intended for Tournel. So you can imagine the cases of mistaken identity, the hiding and scuttling, the tossings and tumblings, that ensue.


A Flea in Her Ear

Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex,

Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through November 5, 303-893- 4100,

This is particularly true once the second act begins, introducing the deranged proprietor, Augustin Feraillon, and his lusciously statuesque Olympe, as well as a guest, Herr Schwartz (a very funny Mark Rubald), who erupts periodically from his room to strike his riding crop against his thigh and inquire about the whereabouts of the beautiful woman he's waiting for. When we discover that Poche, the hotel's drunken porter, is the spitting image of poor, impotent Victor, we know just how daft things are going to get.

And I haven't even mentioned Antoinette, the Chandebises's minxy little cook and her suspicious husband, Etienne (Erik Sandvold). Or Victor's nephew, Camille, whose cleft palate makes his speech hilariously incomprehensible.

Thompson has assembled a group of the Denver Center's strongest actors and mixed in a few newcomers, and every loony character is played to the hilt. Jamie Horton's dual representation of Victor and Poche holds the show together: Each is subtly different; each is a fully realized character. I found Poche marginally the funnier of the two, but both are priceless. Bill Christ, an actor tall and powerful enough to play kings and warriors, is adept at finding new ways to caricature himself. As hotel proprietor Augustin, he's both goofy and dangerous. The cast is beautifully balanced. Randy Moore's Dr. Finache, saturnine, understated and impeccably timed, perfectly undercuts such over-the-top characters as Sam Gregory's cartoonish Spaniard, who's all lisp, explosive energy and bullfighter's moves. Kathleen McCall's light voice and comic style contrast well with Angela Pierce's slightly darker tones as Raymonde and Lucienne hatch their plots. John Hutton is a hoot playing the preening Tournel, and what fun to see Kathleen M. Brady as a sex goddess. Stephanie Cozart is a physically gifted comedienne who amps up the energy whenever she darts across the stage. Douglas Harmsen is terrific as the speech-challenged Camille, his attempt in the third act to recap the goings-on of the second is worth the price of admission in itself.

It doesn't hurt that the Denver audience knows these actors and had been fearing their loss under the company's new artistic directorship; the entrance of every longtime favorite elicits an almost palpable current of pleasure and recognition. It also doesn't hurt that many of these actors have worked together so long -- a fact you can sense in their timing and communication.

And timing is everything in farce. Act One lays down a foundation that has to be as solid as the ensuing edifice is brittle. By the second act, Feydeau has all the exposition out of the way and is free to take his lunacy into the stratosphere. In the third act, he has to somehow resolve everything that's gone before, while keeping all the balls whirling through the air and his characters circling like the figures in a mechanical clock. It's skilled construction that keeps the froth and innuendo bubbling as A Flea in Her Ear lampoons national characteristics (the repressed, violent Teuton, the sex-obsessed French, the mad Spaniard), generates laughs about class differences and, most of all, mocks the games men and women play in pursuit of that ego-affirming and -deflating old bugaboo, sex.


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