Think, for a moment about the things in life that have made you laugh like mad.
Watching a baby, perhaps yours, take her first tottering steps.
Johnny Carson hosting the Tonight Show for a thousand years.
Donald Trump riding down an escalator to announce that he’s running for president.(Okay. That was a comedy but it soon turned into a tragedy).
Now think how hard you laughed at each of those events and imagine what it must be to laugh like that, steadily, for three consecutive hours.
That imaginative experience is fully realized in “A Flea In Her Ear,” the classic George ‘Feydeau farce that opened over the weekend at American Players Theatre.
Theater is not a competitive sport, but if it was then this production is just one more piece of evidence that APT is one of the best theater companies in Wisconsin and one of the very best classical theater companies in the world.
Let us set the scene, although mere words can’t come close to capturing what happens on this stage.
Victor Emmanuel (David Daniel) is married to Raymonde (Kelsey Brennan) who suspects him of being unfaithful at the sinful Mount Venus Hotel. Her evidence is that he has been unable to perform in the bedroom. The hotel, a notorious site for assignation, is run by Feraillon (John Pribyl) and his worn slattern of a wife Olympe (Tracy Michelle Arnold.)
Raymonde elicits the help of Lucienne Homenides de Histangua (Andrea San Miguel) the wife of the dashing, testosterone driven Spaniard Don Homenides de Histangu (Juan Rivera Lebron).
Add to these couples Camille Chandebise (Nate Burger) who is Victor’s nephew and who has a cleft palate causing him difficulty in pronouncing vowels and who is having an affair with Antoinette (Cristina Panfilio) the household cook who is also married to the butler Etienne (John Taylor Phillips).
Just so we cover all the bases here, the couples are joined by Tournel(Marcus Truschinski) an aide to Victor in the insurance business and a noted roué; Eugenie (Rebecca Hurd) the hotel maid and a beleaguered servant; Herr Stompf (Jonathan Smoots), a horny Prussian guest at the hotel; Baptistin (Kipp Moorman), rheumatic old man who is employed as a decoy at the hotel if an angry spouse should show up; and Dr. Finache (Gavin Lawrence) who ministers to the physical and moral needs of his patients while making sure that his own, slightly perverse, needs get met.
In an adept bit of staging by Jack Magaw, Baptistin spends his time in either a bar or a bed that can be rotated to take the place of a bed otherwise occupied.
If you can’t keep all of this straight, and who could blame you, it’s high time to get on your horse, head to Spring Green, and see this wonder wrought by director David Frank and the almost unbelievable work of Fight Director Brian Byrnes.
Like any great farce, this is a broadly acted play with no subtlety. It also has two sets with lots of doors and entrances that see a steady parade of characters crashing about. In the drawing room, site of the first and third acts, there are four doors, a window and an off stage entrance. In the hotel there are four doors, an upstage entrance and a front stage entrance. Everything gets people going in and going out and going in and going out. You get the point, I’m sure.
The story begins when Raymonde and Lucienne concoct a plot to catch Victor en flagrante dilecto at the hotel. Lucienne writes a note as a young maiden who had spied – and fell for – Victor at a recent opera. She suggestively suggests a meeting at the hotel at 5 p.m. that day in room number 5.
And we are off and running.
You can only imagine the glorious cases of mistaken identity, mistaken accusations, mistaken affections and mistaken morals that ensue. When they say you can’t tell the players without a program, this is what they mean.
As is normal with an APT production this is an impeccable cast with high standards both set and met.
Having said that there are some performances that stand out, most likely because of the characters drawn by Feydeau.
Mr. Burger, who is dazzling as Demetrius in the current production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” is a sight to behold as Camille. His mastery of a comedic interpretation of a man with palate problems left with only vowels brought forth roars of laughter from his first moments on stage.
Mr. Daniel did double duty as the patriarch of the family and as Poche, the drunken manservant at the hotel. It is always difficult to play a drunk on stage and takes a special kind of experience and talent which Mr. Daniels has to spare. His butchery of the language and names and his tottering gait are priceless.
Ms. San Miguel shines brightly as the reluctant friend to Raymonde, climbs ever higher as a co-conspirator and has a monologue nobody can understand as she hides, fearful of her rampaging husband. That monologue may well go down as one of the finest and funniest in the history of this company.
Smoots takes the role of a non-English speaking warrior to places most actors can only dream about. His presence is also a clinic on stage movement. Not a single gesture is without an equally obvious motivation.
And then there is Mr. Truschinski who moved from Milwaukee to APT 14 seasons ago. He has matured into an engaging and versatile actor and his gift for physical comedy has never been more apparent than in this production. I could watch him on stage the rest of my life.
Genius is a word sometimes thrown about easily, but it is, in truth, a hard won triumph that belongs to Mr. Feydeau, Mr, Frank and Mr. Byrnes, the fight director.
First, of course, is the work of Mr. Byrnes who staged punches, falls, twists and turns a chases that must have required the mathematical skill of an Einstein. How to keep track of all of this frantic action is a magnificent task and one exercised with, well, genius.
Not easily noticed in this production are comic lines and jokes that are sometimes thrown away by misspent timing or a change in volume.
These occasions are, I’m sure, part of the genius, recognizing that nobody in the audience can laugh for three straight hours. At some point the audience needs a moment to breathe before collapsing from overwrought joy. The thrown-away moments provide just that resting place.
But nobody should see this play hoping to rest. It’s a fully engaging experience with more heart laughs than…say..that Donald Trump ride down the escalator.
Production credits: Director, David Frank; Assistant Director, Christine Weber; Voice & Text Coach, Sara Becker; Costume Design, Fabio Toblini; Scenic Design, Jack Magaw; Lighting Design, Michael A. Peterson; Sound Design & Original Music, John Tanner; Fight Director; Brian byrnes ; Stage Manager, Jacqueline Singleton; Photography, Liz Lauren.