LA JOLLA — There are productions that by their very mass and content defy encapsulating in a review. Certainly "Figaro Gets a Divorce," latest magnum opus at the La Jolla Playhouse, ranks among them. Long, anachronistic, endlessly inventive, satirically on the edge, politically current, funny, fervent and opaque, it is another of those works that you admire more than you enjoy.
The syndrome is increasingly typical of this playhouse where, one is happy to report, nothing unchallenging is ever attempted. Pushing and pummeling the boundaries of theater, however, carries its liabilities along with its rewards, and dissecting this "Figaro" litters the table-top with entrails--the audience's and play's.
Mildly speaking, "Figaro" is a long sit at three hours--particularly since, after a knockout beginning, Act I bogs down in a rush of visually striking (Doug Stein did the sets) but confusing sequences wherein time, objectives and torrential words go searching for a meaning that doesn't quite materialize until Act II.
Its massive and appropriately lurid indictment of power and hypocrisy is credited to playwright Odon von Horvath, but by the time the Playhouse is through with it, it has become the property of many more artists than the author. It is accurately described by its translator, Roger Downey, as "in part, a play about displacement: about the experience of ordinary people caught in the path . . . of the relentless machinery of history."
Indeed it is, but the cutting inferences about recently deposed tyrants (the Pahlavis, Duvalliers and Marcoses) go far beyond anything Horvath, who died in 1938, could have imagined. His principal target was Hitlerism. And the cleverness of propelling the Beaumarchais/Mozart characters of Figaro, his wife, Susanna, and the Count and Countess Almaviva into the roiling 20th Century (what happens after the revolution) was simply carried a logical step further by director Robert Woodruff who eventually turns them loose in Central America.
You get the drift. By Woodruff's own account of the way the allegory grew at La Jolla, pieces of Horvath's puzzle were augmented by ideas from the actors, the designers and composer Paul Dresher, whose pointed music memorably underscores mood and action.
Some individual scenes are merely obfuscating, others complex and stunning--such as the mincing puppet show that opens the play while the revolution rages; the luxurious spa in some Alpine resort where the Almavivas take refuge; the palpable decadence of the New Year's Eve ball; and the angry, burned-out look of a hardening future.
Performances, in general, are astonishing, none more affecting than Olek Krupa's slow descent into contemporary hell as Almaviva--from the powdered 18th-Century fop to the hollow-eyed refugee devastated by poverty and displacement. For Tony Plana as Figaro, the trajectory differs but is equally remarkable. At once despairing and compassionate, the wily barber-cum-servant-cum-barber ultimately develops his own stranglehold over the bombed-out land of his youth. That Pyrrhic victory seals the play.
Among the endless fascinating points and counterpoints made by this "Figaro" is the complex set of feminist emotions that bedevil, strengthen and transform Figaro's Susanna (an excellent Christine Avila), but the number of tracks on which the production runs are a major part of its problems.
Woodruff and Stein have so extravagantly encased the script in mechanical wizardry, and Woodruff has lubricated and buoyed the words with so much sheer physical invention, that it results in the opposite of what he must have wanted. On the page, the Von Horvath/Downey script is accessible and clear; on the stage, so much at once gets tossed at the audience that it unavoidably exceeds its grasp. One sitting's all the audience has to take in a play and, in this case, one sitting's not enough.
There's a lot here to wow an audience but far too much to keep it. The first act alternately careens and lumbers from convolution to convolution, trying to dazzle without catching its breath--or letting us catch ours. The second, which is more localized, focused and clearer (and includes a memorable performance by Rick Nahera as an upstart revolutionary commandante ), provides some understanding only in retrospect.
So, as staggering an achievement as this "Figaro" may be--and it is--it ends up defeating its own purpose and muffling rather than conveying Von Horvath's ideas under a barrage of hoopla. The Playhouse's tendency to overproduce is catching up with it. Next time let's see the text get equal time. At least.
"Figaro" runs through Aug. 16.
'FIGARO GETS A DIVORCE' A play by Odon von Horvath presented by the La Jolla Playhouse on the campus of UC San Diego. Translator Roger Downey. Director Robert Woodruff. Sets Douglas Stein. Costumes Susan Hilferty. Lights Stephen Strawbridge. Music Paul Dresher. Sound Jay Cloidt. Assistant director Bartlett Sher. Stage manager Mary Michele Miner. Cast Shizuko Hoshi, Olek Krupa, Tony Plana, Christine Avila, John Nesci, Gregg Berger, Bill Pearlman, Craig Green, Rick Nahera, Ivan G'ver, Ellen Blake, Mary Qualls, Gin Bonati, Gloria Mann, Danika Hendrickson, Anthony Long, Roxanne Carrasco, Meekaame Houston, Jenny Woo, Triney Sandoval. (619) 452-3960).