ALL LINED UP: Figaro is a play with music rather than a musical.
Theater productions sometimes go to great pains (often ours) to make a period play relevant to modern audiences (The Taming of the Shrew set in a boxing ring comes to mind).
Figaro, based on one of Beaumarchais’s plays about this rascally servant, starts off rocking out in the Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium staging (through March 8), so there’s no mistaking that the intended audience is here and now.
No writer is credited with this buoyant adaptation, so director Makaela Pollock apparently has collaborated with this troop of 10 fellow students — she’s an ’08 graduate — to cut and paste and compress and recombine to entertaining effect. There is precedent, after all, since Pierre de Beaumarchais’s 1784 Le Mariage de Figaro was adapted two years later by Mozart.
Because the original made such disrespectful fun of the aristocracy, its production was initially forbidden by King Louis XVI after he read it, but Beaumarchais later tinkered to make it less offensive.
In this day and age, not to mention political climate, making fun of rank, privilege, and authority is a social obligation rather than a faux pas, so this production turns up the volume on the foolishness. A semi-circle of six doors greets us at the beginning, signaling a slammed-door farce. In set designer Patrick Lynch’s clever arrangement, they are silently wheeled back for most scenes, a constant reminder even when panicked lovers and frightened conspirators are not hiding behind one or more of them.
There certainly are plenty of opportunities for anxious concealment and guilty skulking. Figaro (Haas Regen) is about to marry the maid Suzanne (Jessa Sherman), but she finds out that their lecherous master, Count Almaviva (Joe Donovan), intends to reestablish the feudal droit de seigneur tradition, in which the lord of an estate has the right to bed the brides of his serfs on their wedding nights.
The acting all around is good fun to follow. Virtually every character has some thwarted ambition or teeth-gnashing resentment propelling them. The count’s wife Rosine (Kimiye Corwin) is angry at hubby’s neglect, and Dr. Bartholo (Alan McNaney), who had wanted to marry her, was earlier thwarted by Figaro. Cherubin (Michael Propster) is a young, inexperienced page in lust with anything with a bosom, and the shepherdess Fanchette (Charise Greene) is too doe-eyed to notice the nature of his attentive spirit. Marceline (Georgia Cohen) is a spinster desperate to marry and embittered enough to want to spoil Figaro’s wedding. But she’s outdone in meanness by Bazile (Russ Salmon), who attempts the same in order to curry favor with the count. Gardener Antonio (Jimmy King) lubricates scenes as the obligatory drunkard.
In late 18th-century France, just before the revolution, conflict between the classes wasn’t exactly a novel comic concept. (Beaumarchais’s play was supposedly set in Spain, spoofing those foolish aristocrats, but wink-wink, nudge-nudge.) Some of the cynicism of the time is retained in this adaptation, with Figaro giving a clever little monologue putting down court politics, saying that all you have to do is pretend to know what you don’t know and hide what you do know.
This is a play with music rather than a musical. Cleverly so: at one point a cassette is handed over instead of sheet music, and it’s taken to a boombox instead of a harpsichord. The songs by Queen are more for fun than for show, whether they’re sending up a character or seemingly just venting off excess energy. Sometimes the ditties are interruptions: Bazile singing “I want to ride my bicycle” (“Bicycle Race”), as he does so, is offkey storywise, because he was actually annoyed at the errand he’d been sent on. The songs tend to be as generic as they are exuberant, mostly opportunities for the ensemble to join in, swarming about to their own backup chorus choreography.
Kudos to designers Mike Floyd for costumes, Driscoll Otto for lighting, and Nathan Leigh for sound. While we’re at it, props to Brent e. Smith for, well, props.
Director Pollock makes many spot-on decisions, such as the count being sincerely troubled in his concluding public apology for his bad deeds; Donovan pulls off the mood shift quite convincingly. This Figaro will never be at the Met, so be sure to catch it at the Pell Chafee Performance Center.