Comedy can be a lot of things, but sometimes it’s just plain silly. Moliere’s reputation as the classic playwright of France has modern Americans thinking that Moliere plays are really deep. Truth is, Moliere wrote comedies with roots in the broad farces of the ancient Romans and the Italian comedia dell’arte, usually revolving around a character who’s too foolish to see reality.
The Bourgeois Gentilhomme (gentleman) is one such play, an episodic farce about a man who aspires to being high-society. In City Garage’s production, it’s almost like a Marx Brothers movie – but then again, the Marx Brothers are but another link in the unbroken chain of comedies about stuffed-shirts who get their comeuppance.
Monsieur Jourdain (Jeff Atik) is the Bourgeois Gentleman. Rotund and bewigged, he indulges his desire, using his wealth (probably recently acquired) to be a real upper-class twit. He employs many instructors in music, dance, philosophy, even martial arts. He’s so dense that when his philosophy professor (Trace Taylor) explains to him that all speech is either verse or prose, he exclaims “Amazing! I’ve been speaking prose for 40 years and I never knew it!” Strutting around in outfits that look like Halloween in West Hollywood, he provokes ridicule from his down-to-earth wife (Ruthie Crossley), daughter Lucile (Alisha Nichols), and Nicole the maid (Cynthia Mance). But he ignores their warnings – after all, they’re just women.
Jourdain wants to move in higher circles, so he courts the friendship of a rather affected Count (Troy Dunn) and his lady friend, the Countess Dorimene (Deborah Knox). Jourdain lends the Count money and jewels, which the Count uses for his own purpose of wooing Dorimene. Talk about an enabler! The Count sees right through Jourdain’s silliness, but as long as he’s getting advantages from the foolish gentleman, he’s willing to go along with Jourdain’s pretensions.
In the meantime, a nice young man named Cleonte (Garth Whitten) wants to marry Lucile – but the Bourgeois Gentleman only wants to wed his daughter to a blueblood. Cleonte’s servant Covielle (Max Molina) hits upon a scheme straight out of the old fairy tale “Puss in Boots.” By the end of the play, there’s a happy ending and three couples prepare to tie the knot, thanks to the escalating nonsense of Covielle’s mega-put-on. And Monsieur Jourdain suspects nothing. He’s gained not one bit of insight. Larry David would probably approve.
City Garage is known for staging experimental and politically radical plays, more often than not featuring bare flesh. The Bourgeois Gentilhomme is tame material for this company, but director Frederique Michel has found opportunities to make the 17th century comedy feel more modern without glaring anachronisms. The translation and adaptation of the text, by Michel and Charles Duncombe, uses modern colloquialisms and a healthy dose of risque epithets. Many of the performances are appropriately broad and cartoon-like, especially Atik as the title character. Don’t be misled, though, by the ease with which Atik seems to play this foolish man – the role requires much energy and is undoubtedly physically exhausting.
Crossley is to be commended for playing Madame Jourdain with restraint, making her the practical ballast to her husband’s nonsense. Dunn is suitably epicene and sleazy as the Count.
The play also features songs, by Duncombe and John Gregory Willard, with a strong flavor of Monty Python, especially the “Food” song that closes the first act. As for bare flesh – it doesn’t get any more bare than a belly dancer (Lejla Hadzimuratovic). Moliere may not have envisioned a belly-dancer, but her dancing is there to enjoy. And The Bourgeois Gentilhomme is two hours of guilt-free enjoyable silliness.