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.
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