By Ruth Ross
Merriam Webster Dictionary defines bungler as “someone who mishandles or botches a job,” but to experience the mayhem such a dolt can cause, head on over to the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey where, for the next three weeks, Molière’s side-splitting, raucous romp, The Bungler, reigns supreme. There, director Brian Crowe and his talented cast bring to life the great French playwright’s first full length play, giving us a glimpse of the comedic genius learning his craft, while borrowing heavily from the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition and echoing the silliness of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (itself based on an ancient Roman comedy by Plautus).
The large number of characters, all with strange, foreign names, and the convoluted shenanigans onstage aside, the plot line is rather simple. In Messina, Sicily, a clever valet helps his clueless young master win the heart of a beautiful gypsy girl held as a slave by a nasty old man. To complicate matters, she’s also pursued by another young swain who is, in turn, chased by a rather vacuous noblewoman. True to the commedia tradition, there is plenty of eavesdropping, sudden appearances of characters reported to be dead, the arrival of long-lost children, lots of physical comedy and a convoluted plan set in motion to bring about the marriages so intrinsic to Renaissance comedy.
Crowe’s sure-handed direction keeps these many threads in play and the comedy fast and furious. He should be credited as “choreographer” for moving his cast in intricate patterns around the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre stage, decorated with pastel buildings designed by Dick Block and atmospherically lit by Andrew Hungerford.
With his expressive face (oh! that eyebrow!), physical agility, timing and arch delivery, Kevin Isola is marvelous as the valet Mascarille, self-described as “the most glorious trickster in town,” among the other encomiums he heaps upon himself. And glorious he is, dressed in black and white diamond-patterned vest accessorized with red shoes, pants and hat—all very reminiscent of Arlecchino, the traditional commedia clown. He’s especially engaging when he takes the audience into his confidence, rolling his eyes at his master’s antics and letting us know he’s the smartest guy in town.
Isola raises the comedic bar to an astronomical level, but he’s aided and abetted by a bevy of clownish characters. As Lélie, the eponymous bungler, and Mascarille’s master, Aaron McDaniel (above left) is “knuckle headed clod” personified. Constantly throwing a wrench into his valet’s complex schemes to help him win his love, he elicits knowing groans from the audience every time he appears. Dressed like a Renaissance fop by master costume designer Paul Canada (kudos for striking, over-the-top attire for everyone), he simpers around, barging in when he’s not wanted and derailing the action nonstop. He has great fun with a black beard and a mishmash of accents when posing as an Armenian gypsy. He pulls off a magnificent pratfall exiting the stage in the play’s penultimate scene.
His equally besotted rival, Léandre, is played a more restrained Sam Ashdown. As the object of their affection, Célie, Sophia Blum’s lush beauty and slightly accented speech lends conviction to her portrayal of a gypsy. And Eric Hoffmann gets to chew the scenery as her mean owner (yes, she’s a slave) Trufaldin, who has a secret of his own to protect.
Devin Conway (right) is fine in her few appearances as Hippolyte, the dim-witted Jersey girl pining for and chasing Léandre. Dressed all in pink from hair to shoes, she’s the perfect Renaissance Barbie Doll; all she lacks is chewing gum! As Lélie’s father Pandolfe, a soberly dressed Drew Dix expresses a natural impatience with his dopey son’s behavior, and STNJ’s long-time clown James Michael Reilly (above, right, with Isola) has great fun as Anselme, Hippolyte’s father. He gets to go toe-to-toe with Isola’s Mascarille over a bag of coins that changes hands as quickly as a three-card monte game. Danilo Ottaviani makes the most of small roles as a Messinger and the gypsy Andrés.
The afore-mentioned Paul Canada has created costumes in a riot of colors, ruffles and furbelows that match the antic atmosphere of the play. And the cast is to be commended for their delivery of translator Richard Wilbur’s rendering of Molière’s dialogue into rhymed couplets. It never devolves into sing-song doggerel, but sounds like (almost) natural conversation.
It may lack the biting social comedy, acerbic wit and sly irony of his later works (The Misanthrope, Tartuffe, The Imaginary Gentleman), but The Bungler is perfect for a hot summer day. As Director Brian Crowe put it, “[It] is like a delicious sorbet…sweet, refreshing, and an ideal treat. Moliere’s brilliant twit, colorful characters and unexpected twists—not to mention the delightful costumes and sets from [a] stellar design team—are sure to inspire giddy laughter for people of all ages.” To that, I say, “Amen!” (Left: Sophia Blum, Kevin Isola, Danilo Ottaviani)
The Bungler will be performed at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison through July 30. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5200 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.com online.
Photos by Jerry Dalia.