Madcap ‘A Flea in Her Ear’ rollicks at MSF
CANTON, MI–Some things don’t change. Whether it is the beginning of the 20th Century or the end, a farce still has many of the same madcap elements.
Doors will slam. Identities will be mistaken. People will get jealous. Sticks will be slapped. And in the end, all will be well.
Thus it is at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival stage this summer in Canton as they perform the French farce, A Flea in Her Ear by Georges Feydeau.
Director Janice L. Blixt keeps her actors on the run, conducting a tempo like unto a tarantella. She plays her performers like instruments, each with their own notes combining into an evening of delightful comedy and fun.
A Flea in Her Ear follows the madcap antics of jealous couples, ones who rarely have cause even though they think they have proof of their loved one’s betrayal. At the center are Victor Emmanuel Chandebise and Cecile Chandebise, played respectively by Shawn Pfautsch and Sarah Ann Leahy. Cecile is convinced her husband has taken a mistress, which makes it impossible for her to pursue her own plans for infidelity.
Leahy excels at playing the wronged wife, prettily offended and eager to scheme with her best friend, Vivienne Homenides De Histingua (played by Tehreem Chaudhry), who is drawn in slowly and only because the former stresses that she is her very best friend and the only person she can depend upon. They both play the proper matronly ladies, which is what makes it even more delightful in later scenes when Chaudhry transforms from delicate flower to towering virago, telling off her jealous, overly macho husband in a whirlwind of Spanish, a language she pulls out to show who is really in charge in this marriage.
Pfautsch brings a homey charm to Victor, a man comfortable in his success, concerned about his recent medical challenges and delighted at the idea that someone might be seducing him, even when he has no intention of following through. Pfautsch also plays the drunken porter at L’Auberge de la Jolie Chatte (aka “The Pretty Pussy Inn”) but the audience is not intended to ignore this double casting (the only role double cast in this 15-character show), rather it is crucial to the plot as everyone on stage immediately notices that the porter and the successful businessman look exactly alike except in the clothes that they wear and the accent that they sport (with kudos to Elise Kauzlaric for her accent coaching). Pfautsch does the founders of farce proud with his lightning-quick costume changes and the way he switches between accents and demeanors. The characters may be confused, but Pfautsch ensures the audience is always along for the ride.
Perhaps the most verbally challenging role in this farce is played by Robert Hunter Bry, Victor’s cousin and secretary, Camille Chandebise. Camille has an unfortunate speech disorder. He is unable to pronounce any consonants, leaving only his closest relatives able to understand his speech—and Antoinette the Chandebise cookmaid (played by Lauren Grace Thompson) able to understand his intentions and bodily language. Bry delightfully barrels ahead with the nonsensical speech, never hesitating, as if he were truly born to the language.
Both Victor and Camille are treated by Dr. Finanche, who is given warmth and the devoted demeanor of friend and medical professional by Warren Jackson (who plays the title role in MSF’s “Pericles” this season). Jackson skews strongly to type in the first act so that he has room to broaden the comedy in the subsequent two acts, something he does with flair.
Richie Villafuerte plays the powerful Spanish tycoon, Ignacio Homenides de Histingua, whom Feydeau wrote with all the stereotypes that French (and others) are reputed to hold toward the Spanish. He is the hot-tempered Latin lover who is quick to duel and take violent revenge on those he perceives as cuckolding him.
Mixed in with all the passionate characters and their over-the-top expressions is David Blixt as the stuffy, pompous butler, Etienne, whose spine is always straight and demeanor always proper, except perhaps in an early conversation with the doctor when he seeks out an answer for some pains he is experiencing.
Part of what makes this farce so delightfully fun is that all the artists—both those on stage and off—commit to the vision and tempo of the show. If there were any missteps in the complex, always moving production, they were so well-covered as to be unseen by the audience. Actors made entrances and exits with speed through well-constructed doors. They filled and emptied beds, flung and retrieved carefully crafted props. Lovers embraced and enemies fought, all with flawless precision and comic timing.
Two intermissions provide opportunities for the stage crew to quickly reset the entire scene so that the actors and audience can travel from the upper-class drawing room to the lobby and bedrooms of a bordello and back again.
Scenic Designer Evan Frank carefully crafted both sets so that they communicated the respective class of each environment while also ensuring that they could hold up to hard use. He also built everything with mobility in mind as each set had to be quickly cleared.
Suzanne Young provided each of her actors with the height of 1907 Parisian fashion. The men wore bowlers, vests and suits while the women had their hair in updos and their bodies covered in beautiful, long-sleeved layered dresses.
David Blixt, in addition to his role as the butler, served in the triple role of fight direction, physical comedy safety and intimacy coordination. All three received a heavy-duty workout in this play filled with physical contact done at a very rapid pace.
Adam Kruger creatively supplied the show with a variety of props from firearms to dental implants, from fancy paper to military batons. All perfectly fit the period and contributed to the storytelling.
A Flea In Her Ear isn’t often done, perhaps because it requires a large cast and has challenges that requires expertise from a cast and crew who must be at the top of their game. The Michigan Shakespeare Festival is able to supply both of these elements and the result is an evening filled with laughter that sends the audience off happily.