By Felicia Londré
Molière’s comic genius is often invoked as a touchstone for later playwrights. The human foibles that Molière played upon in his 17th-century farces and comedies – qualities like social pretensions and hypocrisy, greedy opportunism, gullibility, tunnel-visioned self-righteousness, and more – have changed little over the centuries. The trick is to find the humor in our failings without succumbing to cynicism. Two centuries after Molière, that spirit bubbled up again in the comedies of Eugène Labiche (1815-1888).
Labiche’s Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie (An Italian Straw Hat, 1851), a five-act comedy with musical tidbits, will be presented by UMKC Theatre on the stage of Spencer Theatre in the Olson Performing Arts Center at 7:30pm, in previews October 18-20, opening on 23 October and running through 27 October. Ian Crawford directs a large cast of graduate and undergraduate students in the premiere of a new translation by Felicia Londré. Adult tickets are $12 at the Central Ticket Office, 815-235-6222.
Last spring when my colleagues on the UMKC theatre faculty chose An Italian Straw Hat for the 2019-20 season, I pressured them to let me do a new translation of the play. There are several English versions of this ever-popular piece, but one sounds too British and another takes too many liberties (even dropping an entire act!) and another is more literary than colloquial. Over the years I have used several English-language versions in my 19th-Century European Theatre or French Theatre classes. No matter which text they read, students have called An Italian Straw Hat “the funniest play ever written.”
If it’s funny on the page, think what it’s like when you have a cast of twenty in colorful period costumes romping through the hilarious action that takes them to five different stage settings. Fadinard just wants to get married and bring his bride back to his apartment, but first he must track down an Italian straw hat identical to the one that was just eaten by his horse. As if tied to Fadinard’s coat-tails on the crazy quest to various Paris locales, the clueless country-bumpkin wedding party bumbles from one misunderstanding to another.
When Eugène Labiche wrote this masterpiece in 1851, he had been delighting audiences for more than a decade with his one-act vaudevilles. The vaudeville was a genre that developed to skirt the monopolies held by Parisian establishment theatres; it could be no more than three acts and the dialogue had to be interspersed with snatches of song using familiar tunes with fresh words to fit the comic situation. UMKC Theatre’s production has adopted that pattern. I translated the text’s lyrics into rhyming doggerel. Then our brilliantly inventive director Ian Crawford found contemporary popular songs with melodies that worked for the mood of the moment, and he adapted the lyrics to fit the rhythms and stage action. With the collaboration of sound designer Stephen Jarvis, music director Mary Robinson, and music arranger Zack Pierson, the process has yielded some guaranteed audience-pleasing clever touches.
Scenic designer Lee O. Barker has made ingenious use of wagons and revolving units to allow a sprightly flow of action to each locale. Choreography by Stephanie Roberts, costumes by Maria Nieto, lighting by Zan de Spelder, props by Kate Winegarden, and stage management by Caroline Jackson add to the professionalism of the production. As translator and dramaturg, I am pleased to claim a long association with this theatrical gem, not only in the classroom but also having directed it in French as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in 1965. The success of that arena-stage French-language production (songs omitted) led to my becoming the first graduate student invited to direct a main-stage production at Wisconsin: An Italian Straw Hat in English (the Lynn and Theodore Hoffman translation) with the songs in it.
The warmly sociable Eugène Labiche worked with over twenty different collaborators on his 160 or so plays, and he always gave them equal credit as authors. Marc-Michel, listed as co-author of An Italian Straw Hat, was Labiche’s most frequent collaborator. None of those collaborators wrote anything significant on his own; Labiche just wanted one along for the fun of the process. Although the play is called a comedy, it not only intersperses vaudeville songs but also it skillfully deploys the laugh-riot elements of farce: mistaken identity, mistaken location, hiding in cupboards or closets, sticky situations, talking at cross purposes, props in the wrong hands, and an extended chase structure. Molière would be proud of it.
French Connection: Learn about French and American Impressionists at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
By Rebecca Smith
On October 30 and 31, The Nelson-Atkins will host Mary Morton, curator and head of the French paintings department at the National Gallery of Art.
Morton will present her lecture, “Mary Cassatt: Radical Impressionist”, on Wednesday evening and follow it on Thursday with a special graduate seminar “Cassatt and Morisot Now”.
Anyone interested in French painting, art history, gender studies, or European history will want to participate.
Cassatt and Morisot are recognized to be among the top 10 most famous female artists. Both were of the French Impressionist movement. Both worked in the mid 19th century in Paris. Each was aligned with a well-known male artist and each had a single child, a daughter.
Most significantly, both had to break the rules to make their way. Both represent, therefore, feminist, as well as art legends.
Mary Cassatt was a native of Pennsylvania who began her formal training in 1861. Blocked from art sessions involving nude models, she moved to Paris in 1874, seeking greater opportunities. She formed a close relationship with Edgar Degas (some have even postulated that she was his mistress) and, under his influence and that of other painters, her own style developed and matured. Unlike many of them, who often painted landscapes and street scenes, she focused on portraits, highlighting women in everyday activities, especially mothers and children. She would be the only American to exhibit with the Impressionists and did so four times.
She was awarded the Legion d’honneur in 1904. She died in 1926 in Le Mesnil-Théribus.
Berthe Morisot was born in 1841. Following early art training, she became a copyist at the Louvre, where she met and was guided by Corot. He and Édouard Manet encouraged her to work en plein air and she began extensive studies. She and Manet established a very close bond, possibly romantic. Manet painted her 12 times but never formalized their relationship, as he was already married. In 1874, perhaps as consolation, she married his younger brother, Eugene, who gave up his own art ambitions to support her.
Despite being barred from bars, café and theaters, where male artists gathered, she persevered and perfected her art. She painted landscapes, still lifes, portraits and domestic scenes in a fluid, abstract style, working in oils, pastels, watercolors and drawings.
Morisot was included in 7 of the 8 Impressionist exhibitions in Paris – more than any other woman painter – and reportedly frequently outsold Degas, Monet and Sisley.
She died of pneumonia in 1895.
Until the Impressionist movement, women’s route to art was hampered, as they were considered too delicate for the understanding of human anatomy. The Impressionists’ less formal, less monumental choice of subject matter and more flexible painting techniques allowed them to enter the French art world. Taking advantage of the opportunity, they prospered.
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