Creativity is alive and well at Westmont Classical Repertory Theatre. Avant-garde director John Blondell has mounted a stunning production of a rarely staged 18th-Century French classic, Beaumarchais' "The Marriage of Figaro." This is the play on which Mozart's opera "The Marriage of Figaro" is based. It is a sequel to Beaumarchais' earlier play, "The Barber of Seville," which is better-known as an opera by Rossini.
To visually spectacular staging, Blondell has added some provocative touches such as two white-faced black and white clad Pierrots, who are ever-present on a black and white chessboard thrust stage. Their charming presence--as supernumeraries, scene announcers, stagehands--quickly becomes indispensable. One finds oneself thumbing through the script to make sure they haven't been lingering unnoticed there these 250 years. They haven't.
One of the most brilliant innovations has the clowns silently moving huge black and red checkers on the checkerboard stage, as two characters engage in a war of words. One move for each bon mot; jumping, for an especially sharp retort.
Another showstopper is the size of props. With the exception of a 12-foot-tall chair that is used in the trial scene, furniture is doll-sized, while hand props are giant-sized. Thus the countess's foppish music master drags about a wheeled miniature grand piano on a string. The countess's bed is an elaborate canopied creation the size of a doll's bed. But props, such as a pencil, keys, a pair of pliers, are huge.
Janine Calvin's costuming is period, with elaborate papier-mache wigs and headdresses. The show's visual beauty is supported and enhanced by Theodore Michael Dolas' evocative lighting design.
The script is a little masterpiece of gentle intrigue, lively dialogue and unfailing gaiety. An air of naive and delicate sensuality, with much ado about pins, ribbons, sonnets, secret notes and dainty feminine clothes, pervades the plot turns--amid moonlight and sylvan hiding places. It seems surprising there are no fairies--but then there are stock French comedy characters such as Cherubino, Fanchette, postilions, and clowns.
Subtitled "The Follies of a Day," Figaro (Erich Miller), the wily valet and steward of Count Almaviva (Thomas Camp), will marry chambermaid Suzanne (Michelle Kiukow). But the philandering count insists on exercising "Le droit du seigneur," the right of the Lord of the Manor, to "visit" the female servant on the wedding night. Suzanne enlists the aid of the lachrymose countess (Stephanie Lynn Sandberg). There are numerous capricious subplots, and what the French call "peripeties-eclairs" (delicious plot reversals). Acting is appropriately stylized, and for the most part the director has kept a very tight rein.
But there is an ancient curse that states: if clowns speak, their enchantment is broken, and they become merely costumed actors. Even though the device of having the Pierrots announce each new scene solves the practical problem of what might otherwise be confusing transitions, it breaks the spell. (Mightn't they have held up caligraphic scrolls as Marcel Marceau has done?)
Worse yet, to have the clowns assume small speaking parts is an artistic mistake: more is lost than gained. And these moments, with clown Susan Ash as Bridlegoose, and clown Tuan Tran as the gardener are doubly defeating because they are way too overacted.
If this delightful production has another flaw, it is that it cries out for music. The few touches of 18th-Century music were excellent, and should have been extended. The decision to delete the musical vaudeville at the end of the script seems a big loss.
Blondell is a young director with exciting talent. With each new production at Westmont, he seems to take more creative risks. He is fast developing a following among theater people. Where the stage is for the most part stultifyingly conventional--he offers surprises, freshness, exuberance.
It will be interesting to see what he does with the next scheduled production, "Othello."
"Figaro" is Westmont's entry in the American College Theater Festival. The annual competition culminates in finalists being invited to perform at Kennedy Center in Washington in the spring. I would be very surprised if this show did not attract the attention of the judges.
WHERE AND WHEN
"The Marriage of Figaro, or the Follies of a Day," by Pierre Augustin Caron Beaumarchais. Directed by John Blondell. Presented by The Westmont Classical Repertory Theatre at Porter Hall Theater, Westmont College, 955 La Paz Road, Montecito. Plays 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, including a 2 p.m. Saturday matinee. Tickets are $8; $5 for senior citizens and students. For more information, call 565-6055.