Theater Review: A Flea in Her Ear at Trinity Rep

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

 

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Stephen Thorne as Camille Chandebise, Fred Sullivan, Jr. as Pocket and Alex Woodruff as Antoinette in Georges Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear at Trinity Rep. Directed by Tyler Dobrowsky, set design by Patrick Lynch, costume design by Olivera Gajic, and lighting design by Dan Scully.

Georges Feydeau’s 1907 farce A Flea in Her Ear is a classic of the genre. Trinity Rep’s Associate Artistic Director Tyler Dobrowsky is a smart, sophisticated interpreter of theater. Dobrowksy’s cast for this production has both reliable veterans and rising newcomers, headed by Fred Sullivan. Jr., whose comedic gifts are reliably impressive. So if you’re like me, you’d come to Trinity’s Dowling Theater expecting a helluva good time. 

And if you were like me, you’d leave pretty disappointed. To be sure, there are some very good performances and some funny moments, but as a whole this production batters the audience with ham-handed humor far more than it delights with effervescent lunacy. 

Manic Antics, Not Farce

For one thing, the play begins with its engine revved much too high. A few minutes into it and two characters are already humping wildly on the furniture. When Raymonde Chandebise (Phyllis Kay) and Lucienne Homenidès de Histangua (Angela Brazil) concoct a plan to trap Chandebise’s husband Victor Emmanuel (Fred Sullivan, Jr.), they scream and jump around like teenagers who just learned they made the varsity cheerleading squad. A farce always involves ridiculous situations, of course, but that doesn’t mean the actors should continually play them at the top of their lungs, just as it doesn’t mean every physical gesture must be exaggerated. 

But that’s just how the whole play goes, and the effect is tiring over the course of the long first two acts. More than that, the wonderful accumulative effect of well-done farce is almost entirely absent in this production. Farce is the mille-feuille of theater: Layer upon layer of absurdity has to be added together until everything comes together in a riot of hilariously misinterpreted circumstances. Here though, the unrelenting noise and unimaginative slapstick wastes Feydeau’s brilliant writing. (Artistic Director Chris Columbus translated the play, sometimes too loosely. Would a middle-aged, respectable Parisian woman describe sex as “doing it”?)

Too Much We’ve Seen Too Often

In addition, there’s too much going on that’s obvious and even lazy. Handcuffs and a riding crop are waved around as evidence of the naughty goings-on at a hotel used for assignations. Further, the characterizations sometimes depend on old bits better left deep in the back of the closet. A Saturday Night Live character from 1975 can be heard at times in the accent of Timothy Crowe’s otherwise very funny Carlos Homenidès de Histangua. But that’s not nearly as objectionable as incorporating into his dialogue the most famous line from the film Scarface, a choice that went stale long ago.
And that’s not as bad as all the Three Stooges-quality flailing in place of physical burlesque. A cast this good shouldn’t feel it has to try so hard to make sure we get it. Instead, heads whiplash at every whiff of a perfume and shrieks convey every surprise. And I’m confident we would have understood the multiplicity of meanings in the name of the Naughty Pussy Hotel even if female characters hadn’t gestured at their crotches when referring to it.

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Richard Donnelly as Dr. Finache, Fred Sullivan, Jr. as Pocket and Peter Martin as Etienne in Georges Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear at Trinity Rep. Directed by Tyler Dobrowsky, set design by Patrick Lynch, costume design by Olivera Gajic, and lighting design by Dan Scully.

Fine Supporting Performances

Not quite all is lost, however, in this production. Sullivan’s Victor Emmanuel is buffoonish and whiny, but his portrayal of Pocket, the put-upon, inebriated hotel factotum, is wonderful in its weary physicality and slurrily intonated speech. Alex Woodruff has some very fine moments as the cuckolding maid Antoinette. Elise LeBreton’s Eugénie is the funniest person on stage during the brief moments she stolidly chews a sandwich while chaos swirls around her.
  
But Stephen Thorne, as the consonant-challenged Camille Chandebiche, gives easily the show’s best performance. There’s nothing uncomfortable about the laughter his speech impediment evokes. Thorne’s wide-eyed confusion as events spiral out of control has something warmly human about it, just as his physical comedy displays refreshing deftness and agility in a production badly in need of more of it.

Look, no one’s asking for a production of A Flea in Her Ear that leaves the audience with deep thoughts. With a farce, after all, we’re supposed to just sit back and enjoy the light-hearted craziness. But it’s a craziness that works only through a thoroughly intelligent rendering of the text. This time, unfortunately, Trinity Rep has relied too much on just bellowing and cartoonish kicks in the pants for there to be much fun in watching what unfolds on stage.
        
A Flea in Her Ear runs through April 26. Trinity Repertory Company, 210 Washington Street. Box office 401.351.4242, Tuesday through Saturday, 12:00-8:00 p.m. trinityrep.com. Tickets $46-$61.

 
 

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