Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière, is considered one of the masters of stage comedy. His string of farces – including Tartuffe, The Misanthrope, and The Imaginary Invalid – created for the court of Louis XIV are still revived and enjoyed today. The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ has resurrected Molière’s little-known 1655 comedy, The Bungler, translated by poet Richard Wilbur, and given it a sparkling production that effortlessly drew everything from giggles, to raucous laughter, to disbelieving guffaws from the opening night audience.
The plot is deceptively simple. Two young men love the same woman. The clever valet of one man comes up with foolproof plans for gaining possession of the woman, only to have his master’s naivety and slow-wittedness thwart every scheme. Catastrophe piles on catastrophe until the play suddenly arranges itself into a happy ending. Simple, yes, but transformed by director Brian B. Crowe and his company of comics and clowns into comedic gold.
Chief among this company is Kevin Isola, as the scheming servant Mascarille. His facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission; joined to a limber body and some gorgeous deadpan reactions and asides, he keeps the audience in stitches from the show’s opening pantomime to its very last line. Mascarille’s exasperation with his master’s bumbling, coupled with his determination to succeed at this impossible task in spite of it, create the evening’s comedic fireworks. Mr. Isola’s comic foil is Aaron McDaniel, whose lovelorn Lélie, befuddled and bungling, tugs at your heart, even while his every entrance induces a feeling of quiet dread as one anticipates disaster in the making.
The rest of the cast are talented farceurs. Eric Hoffmann, James Michael Reilly, and Drew Dix portray the elder generation, valuing profitability over true love where matchmaking is concerned. Sam Ashdown is Léandre, Lélie’s rival in love, swiftly switching his affections from one target to another with surprising ease. The leading ladies are more than a match for their male cohorts: Sophia Blum’s Célie, the target of both swains, is a quick-witted and willing gypsy girl whose romantic sights are set on Lélie, while Devin Conway’s Hippolyte, Léandre’s one-time fiancée, hides within her blonde kewpie-doll cuteness a Jersey girl’s temper.
The creative staff comes up to its usual standards in creating the public square of Messina, in Sicily, where the action takes place. However, special mention must be given to the imaginative costumes of designer Paul Canada. His designs meld the requirements of French comedy of the 1600’s with the colorful garb of the commedia dell’arte tradition from which Molière took his inspiration for this comedy.
With this production of The Bungler, the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ has come up with a bright, breezy comedy for a summer night’s enjoyment. In between bouts of laughter, audiences will be charmed to discover this neglected work by the master of French comedy, Molière. By all means, go spend time with The Bungler!
The Bungler is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison through July 30th, 2017.
For tickets and information, visit shakespearenj.org.