Modernizing Comic Antiquity, Or What Would a Classic French Farce Look Today: Fickle Brings the Laughs at Olney Theatre Center
In an age where it seems like all the classics are getting reboots of varying quality, I’m willing to bet that many of you have never thought to yourselves, “I wonder what it would be like if an 18th Century French farce was rewritten for today’s audiences.” And yet, I can safely say that if you want a show that is easy to follow, with a touch of classical flair, that is chocked full of laughs, Fickle: A Fancy French Farce is everything you could want and more.
What Meg Miroshnik does in adapting Pierre De Marivaux’s 18th Century play La Double Inconstance, or The Double Inconsistancy, is nothing short of brilliance. The play flows along the themes of commedia dell’arte, where colorful stock characters charge headlong through crazy situations, and in the end everyone gets some sort of satisfactory conclusion. But while it follows those classical themes, don’t expect a boiler plate redux or a simple French to English translation of some antique French comedy. This show takes aims at a whole host of modern issues and conventions that will have you chuckling, chortling, or rolling in the isles (if there weren’t a rule against it).
This play is set in a world of rules. In fact, when I walked in and saw the proscenium, the thrust stage, and the two “viewing boxes” beautifully worked in style to recall the Restoration, the one thing that immediately drew my eye was the large rulebook sitting on it’s pedestal, off to one side.
Trivelin (Marcus Kyd) arrived and began tidying the stage and conversing with the audience. After checkinghis watch for the final time, he cued the introductory music and proceeded to outline the rules of his world and the theatre itself. What might expect to follow Trivelin’s introduction are immediately turned on their head when it is revealed that the young maiden Silvia (Kathryn Tkel) has been kidnapped by The Prince (Christopher Dinolfo) as a gesture of love after she captured his heart sometime in the recent past. The Prince has just come of age and wants Silva to marry him, but the rulebook clearly says he cannot force her to do it.
To complicate matters, Silvia’s fiancée, Harlequin (Andy Reinhardt) arrives to reclaim his lost love. From there it is up to Trivelin and his assistant Flaminia (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) to make sure that order is maintained, the rules are followed, and everyone ends up with the right person. They are aided in their endeavors by Flaminia’s socialite sister Lisette (Tonya Beckman) and the Lord (Mark Jaster) and elderly man of leisure. Wackiness ensues and everything works out how it should. Being comfortable with how things seem and how they should go is exactly what this show skewers.
To say much more of the plot would ruin too much of the fun. In this case there is no substitute for seeing the show.
Marcus Kyd’s Trivelin is wonderful as the show’s straight man. Stiff and obsessed with maintaining the order of the rulebook, it is a joy to see him suffer through the antics of his castmates. And despite his insistence that everyone follows the rules, he is the first to break one by addressing the audience directly, thus shattering the illusory fourth wall. He is the embodiment of the play’s oft embattled order which makes him readily accepting of all the help he can get.
Chief among this help is his assistant Flaminia. Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan has no small task with her role, as she is required to bridge the gap between the witty plotters and the crazy lovers. One moment she is calculating which plan to enact next to achieve their goals, and in the next she’s sharing jokes with the audience, or nervously attempting to sate her voracious appetite. Keegan dances on this wire through the whole play and does not miss a beat. She holds true to the character’s commedia stock origins, providing a driving force for the plot when necessary as well as giving the audience context where needed.
If Flaminia represents the theatrical origins of the play, then her sister Lisette demonstrates how Miroshnik’s adaptation brings the production into our modern era. Tonya Beckman takes the wealth obsessed zanni and relishes in the here and now; snapping selfies with the other characters and the audience, live-blogging for her Parlez VousTube channel, and marketing her own brand of fancy French beauty marks. Lisette is all about number one, and you can’t help but love her for it. Her goal is simple and straight forward: find an older rich gentleman (preferably with health issues) to marry so she can build her own beauty supply empire.
As luck would have it, the show contains a character that meets Lisette’s qualification to a tee. Mark Jaster’s the Lord character is amazingly comical as he waddles about with his walking cane, nearly tripping off the edge of the stage on numerous occasions. Jaster does a remarkable job playing the much older gentleman, so much so that seeing him out of makeup strains belief that they are the same person.
As you might expect Christopher Dinolfo to truly ham up the villainy; but as I’ve said, this play turns things on their heads a bit. Rather than being a mustache twirling cad, Dinolfo embraces the role of an inamorato, or young lover. True to form the Prince can’t quite seem to see beyond his twin passions: the girl who has caught his eye, and his love of acting. As a result, he’s more than a bit flighty. Dinolfo is amazing pulling off nonchalant arrogance, youthful enthusiasm, and somewhat ironically, character growth as he realizes the consequences of his actions and tries to wrestle with how to deal with admitting a truth and making amends.
Those amends must come principally to Silvia, the young lady who captured the Prince’s eye. Kathryn Tkel is a far cry from the damsel in distress you might expect. Right from the start you can see how she struggles, as Silvia, between remaining true to Harlequin and taking in all the riches the palace has to offer. Tkel is delightful as she is discovering something important about herself in the process.
Of course, no play drawn from commedia dell’arte would be complete without Harlequin. Andy Reinhardt is brilliant as the perpetually hungry fool. Reinhardt’s comic timing as he perpetually misreads his castmates’ actions and intentions is constantly on point. It is a joy to watch him push the envelope with the Harlequin archetype.
Oddly enough, there is one final member of the cast I’ve yet to mention. In a bold stroke by Author Meg Miroshnik and Director Eleanor Holdridge, it was important that the audience felt included in much the same way a Restoration audience would have been. The characters repeatedly ask for the audience’s aid throughout the show and do their best to involve audience members whenever possible.
The show’s pacing is quick and lively, which is what one should expect in a good farce. Charlie Calvert’s set design is simple, yet elegant giving the dual impression of a palace foyer and a Restoration stage.
Helen Q. Huang’s costume designs are beautiful, fitting each character into their archetype while somehow managing to seem chique and stylish. And Roc Lee’s sound design is amazingly spot-on, with preshow music that varied between ragtime piano and modern rock songs set to classical strings.
I particularly enjoyed how at times various characters would express themselves through modern songs set in French, during which Nancy Schertler’s lighting designs would shift into high gear giving the set an almost variety show feel.
Once the show gets going, there’s just no stopping the ride. If you’re looking for a fun escape, I would highly recommend Olney Theatre Center’s hilarious production of Fickle: A Fancy French Farce. Il est merveilleux!
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Fickle: A Fancy French Farce plays through March 26, 2017, at Olney Theatre Center in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab – 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For Tickets, call (301) 924-3400, or purchase thm online.
Note: There is a special audio-described performance for the visually impaired on Wednesday, March 15th, and a special Sign-Interpreted performance on Thursday, March 23rd.