Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Molière double-header at California Stage

Suppose a producer put on a show with the first half in French and the second half, in English, a mock version of the first half. You’d probably say the guy was nuts. But, if you pardon the cliché, Ray Tatar, artistic director of Sacramento’s California Stage, is crazy like a fox.

Years ago he started a successful tradition, pairing Molière’s “Les Préciouses Ridicules,” performed in French, with his own comic translation, “Them Ridiculous Little Ladies.” The first is set in 1660 Paris, France; the second in 1880 Paris, Texas. Playing to a full house the current production (directed by Tatar of course) draws howls of glee echoing through both versions.

An attack on “preciosity”– a false and pretentious display of exquisite refinement and love of the arts, especially literature – was common among seventeenth-century French courtiers and the social-climbing wealthy. The play was so successful that Molière doubled the admission price. It was later performed before the king, who showered the playwright with cash.

"The play easily adapts to Paris, Texas,” Tatar says, “because the comic themes are universal.” Like Shakespeare Molière lards his characters with stereotypes, especially phonies of all stripes who get their comeuppance at the end. In the Paris, Texas, version, the same theme repeats, with Magdelon replaced by Maggie (both played by Amira Judeh) and her equally silly cousin, Cathos, replaced by Katie (Claire Langton).

Gone are the tall pompadours and the elegant trappings of the first, replaced with the décor of an affluent ranch house. Again we have the angry father (Scott Taylor) trying to marry off his silly daughter and her cousin. He’s outraged that his two burdensome charges have snubbed marriage to a pair of worthy suitors, who revenge themselves suitably.

Enter Mascarille/Matt Carillo, played by the redoubtable comic actor James C. Anderson, who over the years has made this central character his own. Strutting in outrageously pretentious costumes, he parades his effeteness like a deranged Oscar Wilde, winning the hearts of both silly girls. But the ending provides a shocking revelation that humbles the girls.

At the show’s end a number of the audience revealed that they actually preferred the original version, even though they scarcely understood a word of the French. We were accompanied at the performance by Bonnie Antonini as a consultant. An actor and poet, she speaks fluent French and has performed in French in plays by Molière.

She offered a perceptive insight: even if our French is next to nothing, we can appreciate Molière’s farces because they depend so heavily on the visual.

“Les Précieuses Ridicules” runs through February 15 at California Stage, 1723 25th Street (25th and R). Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. General admission is $20; students, seniors and SARTA members, $15. Call 916-451-5822.

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