Pierre Beaumarchais is best known, at least in this country, as the author of two plays that were adapted into two of the most famous operas in the repertory, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. The plays themselves, rarely produced in the United States, have remained, until now anyway, mostly unfamiliar to American audiences. It is the mission of McCarter Theatre and translator/adaptor/director Stephen Wadsworth to change that situation with their delightfully rich, incisively staged productions of both of those plays, running through May 4 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre.
These are period pieces, and Mr. Wadsworth’s elaborate, painstaking staging, with an extraordinarily fine cast of 19 and a first-rate production team, effectively welcomes the audience into the world of 18th century Europe, while at the same time appealing powerfully to 21st century sensibilities, in his dynamic translation/adaptation of the original and in the company’s formidable abilities to communicate the meaning, emotion and humor of the originals.
In addition to bridging the 18th and 21st centuries here, Mr. Wadsworth, leading director of opera and plays throughout Europe and the United States (including, at McCarter, a trilogy of plays by Marivaux, Goldoni’s Mirandolina, Moliere’s Don Juan, Coward’s Private Lives and Design for Living and Francesca Faridany’s Fraulein Elise) and director of the acting program for singers at Juilliard School, delivers with spirit and skill Beaumarchais’s fine combination of hilarious farce, poignant romance, and scathing social-political satire.
The world of “The Figaro Plays,” as McCarter has named this two-play event, does offer a number of the qualities of opera. There is actual music and singing in both plays, as, realistically, part of the plots, and the dramatic elements here are heightened and intensified. These characters are both realistic and larger-than-life, as are the drama and the comedy. That heightened reality and intensity are vividly reflected in the broad acting styles and in the carefully researched, artfully composed designs of the set by Charles Corcoran, the amazing costumes by Camille Assaf, and the dramatic lighting by Joan Arhelger.
Frequent asides to the audience, occasionally expanding into dramatic monologues and soliloquies by major characters, further enhance the operatic effects and skillfully communicate the humor, emotion, and politics of these memorable individuals.
Though opera lovers may at times find themselves missing the beautiful arias of Rossini and Mozart, and at times even singing along in their heads with the opera music that parallels the action of the plays, Beaumarchais’s Barber and Figaro, as Mr. Wadsworth and company decisively demonstrate here, warrant attention and ample appreciation in their own right, as something less sentimental and more edgy: rich, hilarious, and subversive farce, poignant character drama with powerful social criticism and political assaults. As Louis XVI prophetically admonished, “For this play not to be a danger, the Bastille would have to be pulled down first.”
The Barber of Seville presents a stock comedic plot, one frequently employed by the Italian commedia dell’arte of Beaumarchais’s day. It is the story of the Count Almaviva (Neal Bledsoe), assisted by Figaro (Adam Green), his former servant now the local barber, and his courtship of the beautiful Rosine (Naomi O’Connell), the ward of old Doctor Bartolo (Derek Smith), who wants to marry her himself. The action of the play involves the Count’s amorous endeavors, mostly driven by Figaro (an Arlecchino figure in the commedia dell’arte), to outwit the austere Bartolo (Pantalone in the Italian comedy). It’s a sure-fire comedic situation with timeless appeal, but Beaumarchais, and Wadsworth, take it a step or two further.
It’s the servant, and title character, who takes center stage here, as Figaro — self-reflective and questioning, constantly challenging those in superior social positions — devises numerous ingenious schemes to get the better of Bartolo, insinuate the Count into Bartolo’s house and Rosine’s heart, and derive some personal benefits along the way!
Before the wild finale is achieved, Figaro’s machinations require two different disguises for the Count, as a drunken soldier seeking lodging at Bartolo’s house then as a music teacher to instruct Rosine. Also required are the outmaneuvering of Bazile (Cameron Folmar), meddlesome, eccentric singing teacher and Bartolo ally; secret messages intercepted; surreptitious entrances and exits through bedroom windows; mistaken identities; and much rich dramatic irony and hilarity as the tension rises and the audience observes the surprised characters’ reactions to the wild proceedings.
The Marriage of Figaro (1778), written four years later than The Barber, though banned from production until 1784, takes place at the Count’s chateau, three years after the action of the earlier play. The Count, married to Rosine for three years at this point, is seeking other romantic adventures, including a liaison with Figaro’s fiancée Suzanne (Maggie Lacey).
Longer, with more characters, scenes, intrigues, and plot twists than The Barber, The Marriage of Figaro, in the play as in the opera, opens in the room in the chateau that the Count has selected for Figaro, his valet, and Suzanne, the countess’s maid. Figaro is taking measurements for their matrimonial bed and Suzanne is preparing to warn her future husband of the Count’s plans to revive the obsolete droit de seigneur that would allow the Count to sleep with Suzanne on the night of her wedding.
Figaro is furious and quickly makes plans to foil the Count’s intentions and keep Suzanne to himself. Complicating matters is the aging housekeeper Marceline (Jeanne Paulsen), who wants to marry Figaro herself and, for leverage, holds an old contract that demands marriage if funds are not paid back. Marceline, a significant figure as Bartolo’s housekeeper in The Barber, enlists her former employer to help her, and Bartolo, of course, is still resentful of Figaro’s trickery that helped to win Rosine for the Count three years earlier.
Numerous other entertaining distractions, mostly of romantic nature, arise as the Countess (Rosine) laments the falling off of her husband’s affections; the lovesick young page Cherubin (Magan Wiles, in a trouser role) expresses his boyish passion for Fanchette (Betsy Hogg), the gardener’s daughter, and for Rosine, thereby inciting the Count’s outraged jealousy; the Count actually experiences some self-reflection and growth as a character; Marceline’s endeavors meet with an astonishing obstacle; Bazile meddles some more to complicate matters; a wonderfully wild courtroom scene presided over by the incomparably hilarious judge Brid’oison (Frank Corrado), followed by an even wilder nighttime garden rendezvous scene ensues; and Figaro, throughout, struggles tirelessly to out-scheme the Count and direct the proceedings to his advantage.
From top to bottom, the ensemble, 10 for Barber and an additional nine for Marriage, could not be better. These are experienced, consummate professionals — all credible in their eccentricities, all well versed in the requisite classic style, all with carefully calibrated comic timing and the appropriate energy to bring across the comedy, the drama, and the satire to the audience.
Mr. Green stands out with his boldness and winning manner in his masterful manipulations of his fellow characters, of the plot, and of the audience. He fulfills Mr. Wadsworth’s description of the character of Figaro as “irrepressible, resourceful, practical, empathetic, and full of joy.”
The authoritative Mr. Bledsoe is on target throughout the two plays in his multiple moods and guises as the amorous Count. Ms. Campbell is a warm, appealing Rosine, later countess Almaviva, and Mr. Smith succeeds in delivering a three-dimensional characterization of Bartolo that transcends the stock Pantalone figure.
Mr. Folmar’s Bazile is consistently funny and fun to watch in both plays, and Ms. Lacey as Suzanne proves a charming, outspoken, intelligent, and formidable counterpart to her fiancé. Ms. Paulsen’s Marceline, with a role expanded in Mr. Wadsworth’s adaptation of Barber, serves as a humorous and also strikingly serious spokeswoman for the plight of women and one of at least three outspoken, articulate and highly accomplished female characters in “The Figaro Plays.”
“He offered me strategies for survival in adverse circumstances,” Mr. Wadsworth writes in his director’s notes about the character Figaro. With his subversive humor and his skill in undermining the pretensions and privileges of the aristocracy, Figaro also helped to promote social equality and precipitate the French Revolution — dazzling evidence of the power of theater!
These plays, with their period settings, their extensive verbiage which requires close attention to appreciate the humor and plot, and their length — two hours and twenty minutes for Barber, three hours and ten minutes for Marriage — may not suit all modern tastes, but The Figaro Plays are a remarkable achievement for Mr. Wadsworth and the McCarter Company and they provide two brilliant, funny, entertaining and memorable evenings at the theater.
McCarter Theatre’s productions of Pierre Beaumarchais’s “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro” will be playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through May 4. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www. mccarter.org for show times for the two plays, tickets, and information.