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THEATER REVIEW

'Flea in Her Ear' Snugger Than 14 Bugs in a Rug

May 28, 1997|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — Even serious theater companies need a light repast once in a while, and since American Conservatory Theatre revived him in a big way years ago, French farce master Georges Feydeau provides the snack between meals. It seems to fit the program at Alternative Repertory Theatre, even if Feydeau's "A Flea in Her Ear" doesn't fit the group's small storefront space.

It's interesting that the turn-of-the-century "Flea" is being done here, a few months after the group's staging of the very serious Edward Albee play "A Delicate Balance." A late entry in the Theatre of the Absurd, "Balance" is the weird, slow-paced cousin of "Flea" in the sense that Albee is an American absurdist ally of late, great French absurdist Eugene Ionesco, whose wild comedies take Feydeau's world of out-of-control bourgeoisie to the extreme.

For fans of Ionesco's frequently revived "The Bald Soprano," "Rhinoceros" or "The Chairs," the echo heard in the manic nonsense of "Flea" is the real thing.

In fact, Ionesco probably summed up Feydeau's--and "Flea's"--comic essence better than any critic, when he noted, "There is a kind of acceleration of movement, a progression, a kind of madness. In it one might discover the essence of theater, or at least the essence of the comic. . . . For, if Feydeau pleases, it is not for his ideas (he has none) nor for the stories of his characters (they are silly); it is this madness."

And that may be the problem with director Patricia L. Terry's staging: It is not quite mad enough.

An insurmountable obstacle is the company's space, too tight for the rapid comings and goings of the 14-member cast. You have to admire the moxie and a gutsy desire to dare to pull off the impossible in both Terry's stage choreography and Gary Christensen's set. The set is so small (six swinging doors in a place not normally able to fit five) that there's a charming music-box feeling about it, with doors as absurdly tiny as the plot itself.

*

After a while, though, charm gives way to a practical concern for the actors to have the room to be really, actively funny. Three acts and nearly three hours to tell a slight tale of a wife's baseless jealousy toward her husband may seem a strain for today's audience, but "Flea" is a comic machine that builds up speed. And it needs actors to go, go, go--faster and faster.

It should be so fast that, by the time accused husband Victor (E.J. Gage) arrives at the Pretty Pussy Inn to find out what wife Yvonne (Leisa Jo Waller) is up to, we shouldn't be able to keep track of who's on stage. In this version, we can always keep track, and sometimes we're ahead.

On a stage even half a size larger than this one, Terry's staging--judging by her savvy cast--would be a madcap delight.

Gage, in a double role, is droll as the slow-burning bourgeois type and understated as the Pretty Pussy's abused porter.

Waller and Rosemary London as her plotting best friend, Lucienne, terrifically specialize in panic, surprise and more panic. They're closely followed in this department by David Mendelsohn as Victor's business assistant who gets in way over his head. By Act 3, this group is a silly, ideal picture of head-turning reaction shots.

Their support also suggests talent cramped by too little real estate. Although his Camille--able only to mouth vowels--is unavoidably irritating as a comic type, Andrew Kelley has fun with him, while Sally Leonard and Laurie T. Freed enjoy playing in drag as, respectively, the house valet and a tenant of the Pretty Pussy.

John E. Farrell delivers a mock-worthy performance as Victor's fatuous, clueless doctor, while Michael Mendoza nearly goes over the top, then reins things in, as Lucienne's jealous husband, Don Carlos. Sarah Lang, Pamela Small, Todd Fuessell, Leonna Small and Timothy Roberts are stuck with Feydeau's usual stick-figure comic support, but they keep the machine purring--if not zooming along.

* "A Flea in Her Ear," Alternative Repertory Theatre, 1636 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana. Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. Ends June 29. $16-$18. (714) 836-7929. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

E.J. Gage: Victor Emmanuel Chandel, Poche

Leisa Jo Waller: Yvonne Chandel

Rosemary London: Lucienne Homenides de Histangua

David Mendelsohn: Romain Tournel

Andrew Kelley: Camille Chandel

John E. Farrell: Dr. Finache

Michael Mendoza: Don Carlos Homenides de Histangua

Sally Leonard: Etienne

Todd Fuessell: Ferraillon

Laurie T. Freed: Baptistin

Sarah Lang: Antoinette

Timothy Roberts: Rugby

Leonna Small: Olympe

Pamela Small: Eugenie

An Alternative Repertory Theatre production of Georges Feydeau's farce. Directed by Patricia L. Terry. Set and sound: Gary Christensen. Lights: Dave Carleen. Costumes: Gina Davidson. Stage manager: Julia A. Stormont.

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