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Somewhere in a revolution-torn France, a pot-smoking, free-spending spitfire in a barely-there miniskirt has just intervened to stop a morose plain Jane from throwing herself on the subway tracks to protest the inequities of the ancien regime, and…No, wait, the latest offerings from Washington Shakespeare Company and Gala Hispanic Theatre seem to be running together. Probably because the one is every bit as formulaic as the other.
That said, Barbara Field’s Scaramouche and Gustavo Ott’s Divorciadas, Evangélicas y Vegetarianas both turn out to be pretty enjoyable, tooin a guilty-pleasure kind of way. The former owes its creaky plot devices to Rafael Sabatini’s ’20s novel, which itself was more than a little indebted to Dickens and the Baroness Orczy; the latter, if it weren’t for its 1989 premiere date, could easily be mistaken for an extended episode of Will & Grace. But formulas work for a reason, and these two shows are nearly as sturdy as they are schematic. A little trimming and tightening here and there, and they’d both be slick vehicles for any theater company looking to rake in a little easy money.
With Scaramouche, the fat is in the chief subplot, which diverts the reluctantly revolutionary hero (Hugh T. Owen’s appealing André-Louis Moreau) into a career as a commedia dell’arte performer. Granted, this detour is where the play gets its title: Scaramouche is one of the commedia’s stock characters, and it’s the player’s mask that conceals Moreau from the royalist authorities who want his seditious head on a pike. And it’s true that he uses the stage to further rouse the rabble: One of Scaramouche’s most energetic moments is the one in which Moreau and his troupe tweak the plot of a stock comedy until it becomes an anti-aristocrat J’accuse that literally brings down the house.
But Field, in what’s presumably an attempt at fidelity to her source, spends too much time with the troupe, patiently charting the company’s transformation (Moreau draws on his Paris education and his familiarity with Molière to polish up both the performers and their plays) and our hero’s ill-fated romance with the buxom leading lady. (Jenifer Deal’s earthily sexy Climène breaks his heart in the manner of opportunistic wenches everywhere.) It’s all perfectly entertaining, but by the time the players get to Nantes and that explosive evening, it’s hard to remember why Moreau had to lam it in the first place.
And the politics are the play’s chief concernmore specifically, Moreau’s painful awakening to the essential ugliness of political systems. The opening lines, a direct lift from Sabatini, tell us that our boy “was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad,” but Act 1 introduces us to a jaundiced intellectual who can’t bring himself to get exercised about the insanity. It’s not until an arrogant marquis offs Moreau’s boyhood frienda priest who dares to challenge the nobleman’s authoritythat the title character gets off his duff, and even then he doesn’t move especially briskly. It’s his slow stirring to outrage and action that’s traced in Scaramouche’s primary story arc, and the commedia detour, while certainly necessary, simply goes on too long not to undermine that main narrative.
That’s an easy fix to make, though. The other difficulties with the Washington Shakespeare Company’s production are a little knottier. There aren’t many local houses that can deploy a cast of 14 without inviting a few undercooked performances, but the lineup WSC has assembled here seems more than usually uneven: Too often, Owen seems to be the only one not egregiously over- or underacting. Deal is an asset, too, as both Moreau’s tarnished muse and a kind of feminine personification of the revolution (she sets a nicely moody tone at the outset of Act 2 with a haunting contralto Marseillaise), and Scott Kerns demonstrates real presence and grace in several small roles.
But Grady Weatherford, who doubles as a commedia trouper and a prominent Paris revolutionary, consumes rather too much space and stage time with his boorish overplaying. The grating edge Ian Armstrong gives his grasping commedia impresario makes the grave courtliness of his fencing instructor all the more surprisingand welcome. And Daniel Ladmirault, who’s been striking in other WSC productions (notably Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy), turns out to be strikingly miscast here; the actor can do many things, but he’s unable to find either the dignity or the dangerous edge his Marquis de la Tour d’Azyr needs if he’s going to be a genuinely threatening foil for Moreau.
It may be, of course, that the fault lies less in Ladmirault than in the hideous brocades and horrid wigs he and his aristocratic brethren seem to be suffocating under; Kathleen Geldard’s costumes are a mixed success at best, with the odd period detail rubbing up against other pieces that look suspiciously Gapacious, and there’s a presumably unintended accuracy in another character’s reference to “that sheep on your head.”
The happy news: Director Gregg Henry knows how to establish a mood and develop a stage picture, and he keeps things moving along as briskly as the script will allow. And the story is a swashbuckler, after all, with ironic coincidences and romantic surprises and eleven-o’clock revelations about our hero’s mysterious parentage. Twenty bucks says most patrons will see all of the above coming from, oh, the early passages of Act 1which is roughly the right time to stop taking Scaramouche seriously and start enjoying its formulaic charms.
Venezuelan playwright Gustavo Ott can’t decide whether we should take his Divorcées, Evangelists, and Vegetarians seriously or nothe starts out bright and brittle, then turns quasi-thoughtful after intermissionbut then even the lightest sitcom succumbs every now and then to the temptation of the Very Special Episode. And while it’s racing through the snappier sections of Ott’s script, Gala’s production positively sizzles with sass.
Most of the heat and noise comes from Menchu Esteban’s Gloria, who’s more or less a Latin prototype for Will & Grace’s Karen Walker. She staggers onto the scene with two of her considerable assets very much on display, scrambling for a cigarette and cursing a blue streak at the two-timing boyfriend who’s responsible for her semi-undressed state. She’s fled their regular afternoon tryst, infuriated by the revelation that she’s not invited to his brother’s upcoming wedding, so agitated that she’s stumbled into a territory previously unencompassed by her upscale existencethe subwayand before you can say “Damn, what a rack,” she’s vented the whole story in a monologue as uproarious as it is outrageous.
“Monologue” isn’t precisely right, actually, but Daya Méndez’ Beatriz gets in so few edgewise words that she might as well not be talking. She’s the divorcée of the title, come to the subway station to throw herself on the tracksnot, as we’ll discover, over any romantic setback, but because she’s tired of being alive without really living. Divorciadas is the sort of comedy in which such a character finds reason to live in the coincidental relationship she strikes up with Gloriaand the sort of comedy that will subject poor Beatriz, before it’s over, to a 9 1/2 Weeks-inspired romantic overture, an attempted murder-by-jogging, and a reasonably hilarious mountaintop exorcism.
That last comes courtesy of Cynthia Benjamin’s pious Meche, Gloria’s disapproving friend and housekeeper, who turns out to be wrestling with her own doubts about the fundamentalist faith to which her second husband introduced her. (The play’s concerns, when it turns serious, are about the extent to which its women are defined by the men in their lives: Beatriz dropped out of school to get married and have a baby, and Gloria took up vegetarianism at the behest of her no-good boyfriend, who eats mostly “twigs…in vinegar.”) The uptight balance for the outrageous Gloria, Meche completes the behavior spectrum upon which Ott’s women go looking for a workable mean; they find it, of course, by deciding to live with a little of Meche’s sensibility, a little of Beatriz’ ambition, and a little of Gloria’s verve.
Along the way, Benjamin gets a whopper of a drunk scenethose religious types are always hypocrites, dontcha knowand the other two get a nice juicy catfight, or at least the intimation of one. All three actresses go at their parts with teeth and nails fully baredwhich makes the evening a good deal of fun even when Ott slows his pace to make a pointand Abel López directs with enough flair to make things seem almost snappy even then.
The running jokes get a little thin every now and again, it’s trueor perhaps the idea that the upper-crusty Gloria can’t be bothered to remember Beatriz’s name or Meche’s nationality is simply funnier in Spanish. (It’s worth mentioning, though, that the translators on Gala’s headsets manage to be expressive without becoming too obtrusive, which is by no means always the case.) And there’s no getting around the sitcom structure; the show’s three scenes might as well be three 22-minute episodes, for all any one of them really has to do with the others.
But if Divorciadas is inescapably a by-the-numbers affair, Gala at least has Esteban’s prime little number at its centerand in Benjamin and Méndez, two strong supporting factors besides. CP