‘Scapin’ at Constellation Theatre Company by Justin Schneider

THREE STARS
“Beautiful women, graphic violence, and, um, some sort of conclusion.” Toss in “excellent clown-work” and you’ve got a pretty good snapshot of Constellation Theatre Company’s production of Scapin. It’s promising, but sort of vague. Scapin is proof of a maxim that holds true in the kitchen as much as it does in theatre: having all the right ingredients doesn’t guarantee the final product.

Michael Glenn. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Michael Glenn. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer, Scapin is Molière by way of the circus. I mean that almost literally – the plot is the old “sons of rich men want to marry the wrong women and need the assistance of clever servants” cherry as reimagined by famed clown Bill Irwin and comedic writer Mark O’Donnell. There’s not much else you need to know, aside from the fact that the title refers to the crafty servant who directs the ensuing mayhem.

The set, designed by A.J. Guban, evokes a pleasant mediterranean setting. It also carries shades of Dr. Seuss, with the lopsided, mismatched houses giving you a sense of the comedic world inhabited by the characters. A well-style fountain sits in the middle of the stage, adding to the sense of locale. The set as a whole is a nice balance between wacky and evocative. But the set also gives the first clue towards the vagueness that haunts the production. Radiating out from the fountain are inset strip lights in the floor that change color as the scene demands. At the top of the show, they’re a bright pale blue that contrasts oddly with the warm tones of the set. It’s Dr. Seuss by way of TRON, and these are two great tastes that don’t taste great together. While the colors aren’t always so clashing, it’s still an oddly futuristic touch that continually calls attention to itself.

As the title character Scapin, Michael Glenn is, oddly enough, less clownish than the rest of the cast. His makeup is less pronounced; his mannerisms less over the top. It’s this lack of ridiculousness that makes him such a perfect guide for the audience, and the moments where Scapin interacts with the audience never feel tense or forced. We see the crazies Scapin has to deal with, and we feel for him. Glenn’s genius is that Scapin himself is pretty crazy but he still seems like the one bright point of relative sanity in the whole town.

The rest of the characters, aided by Kendra Rai’s outlandish costumes, are painted in broad strokes by an incredibly talented cast. The actors have really made the parts their own. Take father and son Argante and Octave (Carlos Saldaña and Matthew McGee). Argante is somewhere between a Spanish don and a pimp. Octave is a self-absorbed, WASPy, prep-school rich kid. And yet the two make perfect sense together. Nora Achrati (Zerbinette), Vanessa Bradchulis (Nerine), Megan Dominy (Hyacinth), Ashley Ivey (Geronte), Manu Kumasi (Leander), and Bradley Foster Smith (Sylvestre) round out the cast with musical and comedic assistance from the talented Travis Charles Ploeger (George). Smith’s Sylvestre is particularly hilarious, having some of the best physical bits, great lines, and an amazing set of celebrity impressions.

The set is good. The music is good. The costumes are great, the makeup is great. The cast are funny and energetic, the script is witty.

And yet.

As a whole, Scapin doesn’t seem to have a sense of its own purpose. By the time intermission rolls around, the plot has basically been resolved. It’s not until after the characters return that the real complications are added, retroactively justifying the lack of an early curtain call. I think of myself as a fairly perceptive theatregoer and I’m still not entirely sure why one of the two sons needed his fathers’ money. Which characters are we actually supposed to like? What’s actually at stake in Act II? There are problems like that throughout the production (how did Argante learn he was swindled, while we’re on the subject?) and most of them don’t seem to be answered.

Near the end of the play, there’s a chase scene that sums up everything that is great and everything that is disappointing about Scapin. The chase occurs because, as Scapin puts it so eloquently, “Comedy demands it.” What ensues is something straight out of the Benny Hill playbook, with everyone chasing everyone else by the time the scene is done, some gratuitous sword fights, and a lot of door opening. It’s several minutes of nonstop laughter, and the fact that the pretense (Scapin attempts to avoid a sudden enforced marriage) is so thin doesn’t really matter. But the scene goes on for quite some time, and partway through it Scapin is being hidden by the one person who he’s actually running from. And yet there’s still more chasing because it’s a chance for funny actors to keep being funny. There’s a fine line between something being absurd and something that doesn’t make sense, and Scapin leaps gleefully over that line and keeps on running.

The cast of 'Scapin': Michael Glenn, Megan Dominy, Matthew McGee, Ashley Ivey, Bradley Foster Smith, Carlos Saldana, Nora Achrati, Manu Kumasi, and Vanessa Bradchulis. Photo by Stan Barouh.
The cast of ‘Scapin’: Michael Glenn, Megan Dominy, Matthew McGee, Ashley Ivey, Bradley Foster Smith, Carlos Saldana, Nora Achrati, Manu Kumasi, and Vanessa Bradchulis. Photo by Stan Barouh.

As a result, Scapin is a difficult show to sum up. It’s funny, and in the words of another audience member, “I didn’t not enjoy myself.” Scapin is a decently enjoyable two hours, and the great tragedy is that it feels like it could have been much more than that.

Running Time: Two hours long, with one fifteen-minute intermission.

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Scapin plays through February 16, 2014 at Source – 1835 14th Street. NW in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 204-7741, or purchase them online.