An adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel by Susan Haedicke, Monica Neagoy, and Didier Rousselet

Directed by Monica Neagoy

and Didier Rousselet

At Le Neon Theater to

February 18

Caballero de Milagro

By Lope de Vega y Carpio

Directed by Hugo Medrano

At Gala Hispanic Theater to

February 18

Emerging over a snowswept crag, a barefoot child inches toward the only structure on a desolate landscape. He is so roughly swaddled in icy rags—face obscured, hands clutching a mass of dirty white cloth that turns out to be an infant—that he might be taken for an abominable snowman. Traversing the short distance to the lonely structure’s door proves a glacial process, each step a separate agony. And once the door is reached, the child’s plea to be allowed inside is met, not with sympathy, but with cryptic, cruelly existentialist questions. To one of these queries—an impatient, “What time is it?”—the child pathetically coughs the only syllable his numbed brain can muster: “Cold.”

Sounds like Brecht, doesn’t it? Or maybe Beckett. But it’s actually the start of The Man Who Laughs, Le Neon’s ambitious adaptation of L’Homme Qui Rit, a sweeping, melodramatic poem-novel by that champion of French Romanticism, Victor Hugo. The novel’s politically pointed beauty-and-the-beast story may be too monumental to be effectively captured by a cast of eight in the company’s tiny Arlington storefront, but that hasn’t kept the show’s creators from taking a running leap at epic theater. They’ve landed somewhere about halfway between their goal and the sort of small-scale absurdism they explored last season in Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit).

The barefoot, frozen child is Gwynplaine, a deformed creature of such consuming ugliness (he’s played by Didier Rousselet in a mask that renders the lower half of his face skull-like) that none who sees him can ever recognize his nobility of spirit. The infant he carried, who was blinded by her ordeal and is consequently untroubled by her savior’s ghoulish visage, is Dea (Monica Neagoy). And the impoverished devotee of paradox who takes them in and exploits them in freak-show performances of his allegorical play, Chaos Vanquished, is Ursus (Richard Bauer).

Hugo’s political concerns are summarized in this interior play, which deals with humankind’s struggle against temptations of the flesh. Having conceived the novel as a morality tale about social responsibility, the author took pains to engineer Gwynplaine’s life so that it echoes Chaos’ lessons. No sooner has the unfortunate lad discovered that his love for Dea is reciprocated than he’s spirited away by skittering monklike figures who inform him that he is of noble birth. Alas, the comforts and exalted place at court they offer make Gwynplaine miserable. Having experienced real-life pain, he tries to lecture his gaudily attired fellow noblemen about how insulated they all are and how an awakening populace is bound to transform society (“I come out of the abyss; I am misery….I will rise up”). But laughed at and scorned for his trouble, he finally longs for the sanctuary of Dea’s love and returns to her.

All this no doubt sounds as melodramatic in synopsis as it plays, though it’s eruditely handled by adaptors Rousselet, Neagoy, and Susan Haedicke. Their script is composed entirely of excerpts from Hugo’s novel, and the program indicates their English translation is faithful to Hugo’s poetic language, which may explain the rhetorical overkill of some passages. Ursus, particularly, is given real mouthfuls every time he begins soliloquizing. It says something that his early, would-be comic rant on the nature of truth proves difficult for Bauer, whose skill at delivering dissertations by the likes of Shaw and Strindberg is pretty much unequaled. The performer fares better when his character gets to wax ironic, as in the comment he makes on the budding romance between his two charges: “How singular; with all the oil I pour on the fire, I cannot extinguish it.”

Neagoy and Rousselet, assaying the central roles, declaim their lines prettily enough, and manage to suggest depth of character that isn’t always there in the script. As co-directors and co-designers they were also responsible for finding the production’s clever-on-a-budget visual equivalents for poetic grand gestures. Gauzy curtains descend around a bed, wrapping its inhabitants in a warm haze. Icy blue lighting turns a strip of white cotton batting into a snowbank. And an electronic, vaguely dirgelike score lends the evening a feel that is at once classical and contemporary. I could have done without the stylized slo-mo gestures of minor characters, which serve more to slow the proceedings than to suggest grandness, but it’s easy to understand the impulse to expand this chamber piece, given its highfalutin origins.

Ultimately, though, the adaptation of Hugo’s novel falls victim to the same problem that doomed Hugo’s own stabs at being a dramatist: His passion for rhetorical flourishes—appropriate in poetry, but grandiose when uttered onstage—overwhelms any emotion an audience might feel. And there’s not much an acting company, no matter how earnest, can do about it. The story remains persuasive, its execution less so.

Writing some three centuries earlier, Lope Felix de Vega y Carpio took a much lighter tack when he decided to tweak nobility. In Caballero de Milagro (Gentleman by Miracle), currently being revived by Gala Hispanic Theater, the founder of the Spanish comedia simply pictured a handsome cavalier—an upper-crusty figure traditionally considered loyal, generous, courageous, and a champion of the weak—as vain, caddish, and an utter bounder.

Luzman, played by lanky charmer Adriano Gonzalez, is first spotted making an abrupt exit through the window of a girlfriend’s bedroom. As his servant (Luis Caram) helps him tug on his clothes, the cavalier brags so insistently about his physique, his charm, and his irresistibility to women that it’s obvious he’s riding for a fall. Three affairs, two patrons, and an abortive duel later, he gets his comeuppance, having by that time pretty much shredded any dignity his class possesses.

Since contemporary audiences aren’t likely to appreciate what director Hugo Medrano’s program notes refer to as “this harsh critique of the Spanish aristocracy,” Gala has chosen to update it and treat it as uncomplicated farce. A 17th-century maid trilling an aria gets banished from designer Tony Cisek’s timeless Roman streetscape almost as soon as the lights come up and is replaced by a crowd of post-WWII “types”: American soldiers, tight-skirted prostitutes in stiletto heels, debonair aristocrats, and working-class stiffs. Once they’ve shared an opening description of the hero, he tumbles from the window in all his David Nivenesque glory, and hi-jinks, as they say, ensue.

The cast ranges from capable to actively comic (Soledad Campos is delicious playing a tart-tongued tart, and Carla Nakatani survives being dumped unceremoniously in a center-stage fountain with her dignity hilariously intact), though appreciating individual members’ efforts will require patrons who don’t speak Spanish to turn off the lamely voiced simultaneous translation. The night I attended, Gala was experimenting with new headsets, but the bugs in the system had more to do with lackluster reading than with buzzes and pops. Carefully in-sync with the action on stage but drearily uninflected, the headset voices so drained the life out of punchlines that it was hard even to follow the physical comedy. Toward the middle of the second act, I turned them off, opting to sacrifice sense for slapstick, and had a decent time of it. Spanish-speakers will have an obvious advantage. CP