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Moli-re is in the Air

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

This summer, it seems, Moli-re is everywhere. In the 17th century playwright-s birthplace, France's national theater, the Com-die-Fran-aise, is staging a pair of works that Moli-re collaborated on with composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. These two pieces blend music, dance and, of course, Moliere-s incomparable gift for farce--becoming the hottest ticket in Paris.

But one doesn-t have to travel to the City of Light this summer to be illuminated by the work of The Sun King-s court dramatist. Last week in Los Angeles, one could sample from four different theater pieces that celebrate the comic and creative genius of Moli-re.

The Orange County Performing Arts Center was the setting for a production entitled Moli-re & Don Juan. This piece weaved together two narrative threads: biographical sketches of the playwright-s later years which would segue to Moli-re own play about the famous libertine, Don Juan. Performed by the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersberg, this dance piece pays homage to the &quotcom-dies-ballets;" currently running in Paris, but most of all it posited that Moli-re-s comedic gifts often stemmed from his own personal pain.

Not to be outdone, the Bare Bones Theatre Company in West Hollywood also decided to make an evening-s entertainment of out two Moli-re pieces. Tony Tanner updated both The Misanthrope and The Learned Ladies and presented them both under the title &quotA; Pair by Moli-re.-

Besides taking Moli-re-s work out of Baroque France and updating it to early 20th century Britain, Tanner-s production is notable for squeezing the maximum impact out of the smallest resources. With only a few flapper costumes and a handful of lights and props, the impresario--who also appears on stage in small choice parts--successfully transformed an empty park rec center into a cozy drawing room, thanks to the conviction of his well-rehearsed cast.

Tanner-s adaptations, which emphasize Moli-re-s exquisitely rhymed couplets, are great fun--especially in a trifle like The Learned Ladies. But in The Misanthrope, it becomes too easy to get lost in the cleverness of the wordplay and ignore the broader reach of Moli-re-s profound study of human interaction.

Across town, a more traditional staging of The Misanthrope boasts a lavish set, complete with Louis XIV chairs, marble busts--not to mention actors with powdered faces, cascading wigs, and frilly cravats. Director and star, Jack Stehlin uses the venerable Richard Wilbur translation, but unfortunately he and the rest of the cast can-t quite bring the text to life. The staging looks good but doesn-t sound convincing. From the tinny-sounding Harpsichord music to the affected falsettos, this sincere but stilted production version of The Misanthrope makes Moli-re-s work seem like a museum exhibit.

This cannot be said of another production, an update of Moli-re-s farce The Scheming of Scapin which takes place during the San Francisco gold rush. Rather than taking a curatorial approach, Anne McNaughton-s San Fran Scapin takes Moli-re-s text and injects it with helium. Like -A Pair by Moli-re,- San Fran Scapin is no frills in terms of production. Besides the western gear that serves as wardrobe, the set is simply a wall painted with bright, primary colors that calls to mind a backdrop from a Yosemite Sam cartoon.

San Fran Scapin is certainly cartoonish, but it does deliver the laughs in a way that few Moli-re productions do. The staging is irreverent, but it captures the zany essence of Commedia dell-Arte. The old west lingo and accents help make McNaughton-s loose translation accessible to both the audience an her actors, who never get caught up in the text. No, the energetic cast of San Fran Scapin ensures that both the verbal and physical comedy are served up in -apple pie order.- In this summer of Moli-re, in terms of miles and mirth, San Fran Scapin may be the closest thing to striking gold.

San Fran Scapin runs through this Sunday at the Andak Stage Company in North Hollywood. (For reservations, call 818-506-8462.) The Misanthrope continues at the Odyssey Theatre in West LA until June 19.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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