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‘Molière Impromptu’ at The University of Maryland School of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies by Jessica Vaughan

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The University of Maryland School of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies invokes a mastery of comedy in their new production of Molière Impromptu. Molière was a 17th century satirist and playwright whose work, like a few classic comedians, is still really funny 350 years later. He also led quite a racy life under the patronage of the flamboyant nobility of France. Playwright Rinne Groff takes advantage of both, translating and adapting three of Molière’s one-acts and filling in the possible backstage action in this light hearted ensemble piece about life in the theater. You get four shows in one as the company tries to put together a play for the King of France.

The cast of 'Molière Impromptu':Moriamo Akibu, Sam Stenecker, Shane Murphy O'Loughlin, Katerina Klavon, Ariel Myren, Jenay M, Jonathan Helwig, Emma Lou Hebert, Nadia Mo, Becca Ballinger, Natalie Carlyle and James Skaggs. Photo courtesy of Clarice Smith Performing Center.

The cast of ‘Molière Impromptu’: Moriamo Akibu, Sam Stenecker, Shane Murphy O’Loughlin, Katerina Klavon, Ariel Myren, Jenay M, Jonathan Helwig, Emma Lou Hebert, Nadia Mo, Becca Ballinger, Natalie Carlyle and James Skaggs. Photo courtesy of Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

Matthew R. Wilson directs and choreographs the piece and it did take choreographing. The three one-acts are done in the classic style, echoing Commedia Dell’arte with masks and battles across the stage set like the backstage of a theater with rugged canvas sheeting and stylish mirrors by Set Designer Lydia Francis, under the warm glow of old-style stage lights by Brittany Shemuga. Sound Designer Eric Shimelonis completes the atmosphere with traditional music and a truly remarkable fanfare whenever the King makes an appearance.

The 12-person cast takes on two and three roles throughout the play within a play within a play. The funniest part was watching their offstage lives shine through the roles they assume – from the serious actor who just wants a great death scene to the intern who just wants his shot in the lights, to the half dozen marriages and relationships that are tested onstage and off. In other words, life in the theater hasn’t changed all that much in three centuries either.

At the center is Molière (Sam Stenecker) – an egotistical yet empathic leader of the company who has a truly marvelous French accent. The young intern Michel (Jonathan Helwig) is earnest and vulnerable in the quiet start to the play. Shane O’Loughlin, Jenay McNeil, Nadia Mohebban, and Emma Lou Hebert (du Croisy, du Parc, La Grange, and Brecourt) round out the male half of the company, playing jokers, doctors, counts, and one notable notary in the one-acts, while all doing a good job to distinguish their characters from the bewigged multitude onstage. The king himself (James Skaggs) is hilarious with the accent that wins for most crazy Frenchman. He makes the most of it at intermission by ordering random audience members to kiss his shoes.

Natalie Carlyle, Rebecca Ballinger, and Ariel Myren (Mademoiselle du Croisy, Mademoiselle de Brie, and Mademoiselle du Parc) are the female company members who look to be having so much fun with their roles, even as they are beaten up, hauled around, dropped, and generally tumble about the stage. Katerina Klavon and Moriamo Akbu (Mademoiselle Molière and Mademoiselle Bejart) play the two love interests of Molière.  (And yes, only one of them is his wife). They bring an unexpected depth and seriousness to their roles. For all the farce, the relationships are surprisingly sophisticated.

Director Matthew Wilson.

Director Matthew Wilson.

They are all decked in period wear that seems to have been dipped in Technicolor by Costume Designer Kate Fulop. They wear feather hats, lace cravats, petticoats, and gorgeous wigs by Anne Nesmith in every color – purples, turquoise, pinks, and blues. For the play within a play, the costumes grow even more outlandish, including traditional masks by Kara Waala.

This is a layered and very well-written play, and Wilson makes the most of the production, building an ensemble who can handle the quiet offstage heartbreak and the onstage drama equally well, and who are all incredibly funny as well. Molière Impromptu makes for a really fun, laugh-out-loud night of theater.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute introduction.

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Molière Impromptu plays through November 16, 2013 Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center –  University of Maryland Stadium Drive, in College Park, MD. For tickets, call (301) 405-ARTS (2787), or purchase them online.

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