The Denver Center Theatre Company's Scapin or the Con Artist is such an intelligent, lively, tasteful production. Nagle Jackson's translation of Molière zips along: It uses contemporary slang but doesn't hit you over the head with desperate-to-be-relevant jokes. There are some hilarious rhythmic ping-pong bits and some amazing sequences of repetition -- the kind where you know the actor's going to repeat the absurd phrase one more time, except you also know he can't because that would be ham-handed. But then he does, only it's with a new inflection or in a different context or after you think the entire subject has been dropped and the resultant mixture of recognition and surprise convulses your gut. Vicki Smith's set design -- a bright blue sea framed by painted curtains -- is flat, bright and stagey and provides a perfect backdrop for the caricatured action; lighting designer Dawn Chiang causes a good-natured glow to radiate over the proceedings; and the costumes, courtesy of Kevin Copenhaver, are quirky and clever. But despite all this, the show isn't as funny as it should be.
Scapin isn't about character or plot; it's a sequence of hoary old jokes played out by stock types based on commedia del arte characters. There are the two old pantaloons, miserly fathers who stand in the way of young love (we recognize them from Shakespeare -- the haggling parents in Taming of the Shrew, for example). There are also four lovers squirming in the misers' financial grip, a pair of feckless men and two women -- one a simpering virgin, the other a heartless, seductive gypsy. Finally, the cast includes two servants who are wilier than their masters, one of them being the resourceful Scapin. There's lots of physical comedy, including the frequent blows and beatings that medieval and Renaissance audiences apparently found irresistibly funny, administered here with a literal slapstick.
What's missing, except in the performances of Jamie Horton and Randy Moore as the fathers, is an all-stops-out approach to the acting. I hesitate to say this, because I'm not really asking for more hamming, and some of the foolery in the production is already annoyingly unmoored and over the top. For an actor, going all out shouldn't mean becoming more self-conscious, speaking faster or yelling until the veins in your neck cord. Horton has it down pat; in fact, over the past couple of years, he's created a gallery of comic characters worthy of Dickens. His Geronte is ridiculous, broadly caricatured, full of absurd tics and mannerisms, way bigger and crazier than life. He yaps and growls and sometimes mmmpphs. And yet Geronte is also real. He has feelings -- at times so strong that they positively shake his frame, and through our tears of laughter, we actually find ourselves feeling sorry for him. This is risk-taking, outrageous, gutsy acting. Randy Moore, playing Argante, isn't quite as out there, but looking like the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, he matches Horton in pure comic conviction. At workshops and studios, you'll hear all kinds of phrases describing good acting: working from the center, being present, inhabiting the moment. Moore and Horton illustrate the meaning of those words.
Cameron Folmar is a competent actor, but he doesn't have the relish, the sheer juiciness needed to carry off the role of Scapin. He's controlled and sarcastic. He's not enjoying himself or making the audience a co-conspirator to his schemes. When Folmar finally does cut loose, in the scene where Horton's trapped in a sack, he's a hoot. He dances around the stage assuming various nationalities -- a Frenchman, a Puerto Rican, a German, a stock British military officer -- and it's nice to see him break a sweat. As the second servant, Silvestro, Anthony Powell holds back,too. His funniest moments come courtesy of one of Copenhaver's costumes, as he attempts a cheerleading routine with wooden blocks attached to his shoe soles and sausages flapping from his bandolier.
Christopher Kelly, sporting feathery curls, does well physically as the hapless lightweight Octavio, but vocally he sustains one note through the entire production, speaking so fast that his words run together. Steven Cole Hughes plays Leander with strength and good comic timing. (I liked his assumption of one of the vocal tics of his father, Horton's Geronte, but thought he could have sustained the joke more.) Corliss Preston as the gypsy Zerbinetta employs an irritating accent, and while her energy is good, her acting seems superficial. Elizabeth Rainer's Hyacinth is as silly and pouty as the script requires, tantalizing us with a hint of something interesting and inexplicable underneath, some combination of an even deeper silliness with a mocking and very grown-up intelligence.
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