Saturday, March 07, 2009

On-Stage: Figaro/Figaro

Playwrights Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais and Ödön von Horváth both lived very eventful lives. After the French Revolution, de Beaumarchais would successfully endure a brief incarceration and several years in exile. The Austrian-Hungarian Horváth however, would die in Paris, an exile from his Nazi-dominated homeland. Both men also shared a literary character: Figaro, the Barber of Seville, created by de Beaumarchais. His three Figaro plays would become operas, including Mozart’s ever popular Marriage of Figaro. In the 1930’s, Horváth penned Figaro Gets a Divorce, a sequel which directly reflected the contemporary conditions in Europe. These products of radically different times are juxtaposed to interesting effect in Figaro/Figaro, Eric Overmyer’s adaptation and merger of de Beaumarchais’s Marriage and Horváth’s Divorce, now running on the New York stage in a (Re) Directions Theater Company production.

Opening with the earlier Marriage of Figaro, the former barber is back in the service of Count Almaviva. Figaro eagerly anticipates his marriage to Susanna, the maid-servant to the Countess. Unfortunately, Almaviva has grown bored with his wife and intends to invoke his lordly privileges with Susanna before her wedding night. A gifted schemer, Figaro is determined to foil his plans. As events unfold, there are a number of near misses as people run in and out of rooms, slam doors, and jump out of windows. The comedy is broad and energy is manic, but all’s well that ends well. Or does it?

As Act II opens, per Horváth, revolution has toppled Almaviva and the rest of the aristocracy. Figaro and Susanna lead their master and mistress across the border to relative safety, but it soon becomes clear they view the revolution from radically different perspectives. Figaro is inclined to forgive the excesses of the revolutionaries out of a feeling of class solidarity, whereas Susanna shares Almaviva’s Burkean revulsion at the reign of terror sweeping their country. This seems to be no mere difference of opinion, but a fundamental clash of values, threatening to permanently rupture their relationship.

In F/F, it certainly seems to be more fun to live under a feudal lord than in a modern world filled with isms. Though the more challenging second act offers some satirical laughs, they are nothing like the free-spirited romantic comedy of the first act (play). The difference in tone is also reflected in the incidental music, played on-stage in the style of John Doyle’s Sondheim revivals, by actors also featured in supporting roles. In the first act, they often quote from the Figaro related operas by Mozart, Rossini, and Massenet—sometimes quite humorously. In the second act, their themes are more influenced by jazz, the music of the 1930’s and modernism in general.

While each recurring character changes drastically from one act to the next, Ralph Petrarca’s terrific performance makes Almaviva’s transition from blustering heavy to tragically dispossessed nobleman a smoothly credible character arc. By contrast, the sudden manifestation of Figaro’s class consciousness is a bit jarring.

If the intriguing F/F does not literally have something for everyone, it certainly covers a lot of bases, including boudoir farce, political allegory, and some clever musical interludes courtesy of arranger/composer Tom Berger. Deliberately uneven in terms of style and tone, it is an odd, but fascinating combination, notably featuring a great performance from Petrarca. It plays at the 14th Street Y Theatre through March 22nd.

(Photo: Ryan Baxter)