Beaumarchais’ THE BARBER OF SEVILLE at The McCarter Theatre Center

April 11, 2014

derek_smith_and_naomi_oconnell__photo_by_t._charles_erickson

Derek Smith as Bartolo and Naomi O’Connell as Rosine in THE BARBER OF SEVILLE at the McCarter Theatre Center – photo by T. Charles Erickson

 

Sometimes, while watching a play one has never seen before, it may seem wonderfully familiar.  The story may be different, but there is that strange feeling that these characters come from somewhere else.  In retrospect, this is not a bad thing; it just means that a viewer has a history with the theatre on which to base his or her experience.

This was the case during THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, the first of THE FIGARO PLAYS being presented in repertory at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ through May 4.  The second, THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, will be forthcoming.  Stephen Wadsworth, who translated, adapted, and directed these pieces, is no stranger to McCarter audiences as he delivered delightful productions of forgotten plays by Marivaux and Goldoni here in the 1990s.  This time, it’s the works of Pierre Beaumarchais which are far better known in their operatic forms.  Beaumarchais was a French watchmaker who elevated the erratic timepieces of the day to reliable works of art (even fashioning the first watch set into a ring) and hoped for a political post in Spain.  When that did not come, he began writing plays, and they were very popular plays at that.

If you are familiar with the opera, then you know the story.  The wily Figaro (Adam Green) helps his former master, Count Almaviva (Neal Bledsoe) win the woman he has followed throughout Europe, Rosine (Naomi O’Connell).  To do that, Figaro confounds Rosine’s guardian Bartolo (Derek Smith) and his toady Don Bazile (Cameron Folmer).  Bartolo is planning to marry the much younger Rosine in order to secure her fortune for himself.

Besides the storyline, the familiar part of this comes with the characters.  Beaumarchais was writing at a transitional time in the mid-eighteenth century after the Restoration and Classical periods and before the Romantic, but he still looked to theatre history for the characters that people these scripts.  The plays of this time seem to rely heavily on satire and social commentary, and Beaumarchais used characters that come directly from the stock characters of the commedia del’arte of the sixteenth century to act out his story.

The agile wit, Arlecchino, is Figaro.  Here, the Count and Rosine are characters that were known by many names but came under the heading of Inamorato, the young people in love who always seem to have the problem that needs to be fixed.  Bartolo is the Venetian merchant Pantalone who is rich, mean, and miserly.  Rounding out the main cast is Bazile whose counterpart would be Il Dottore (the doctor) who is a learned man who is full of himself and easily swayed from his purpose by money.  They’re all there plus a few more, and it makes it very easy to follow their exploits because they are so familiar.

Although Adam Green seemed a bit low on energy and flair for Figaro on opening night, he still turned in a serviceable job.  Because of the type of character he plays, one expects a far more robust performance.  Not overly loud and large, but Figaro is a schemer who is always thinking.  Here, he is affable but too laid back to really get involved.  He is a complainer, not a doer.

Neal Bledsoe had a slow start on opening night, but he made up for it as the play progressed.   His Count Almaviva is dashing and a bit daunted which gives audiences a character for whom they should be rooting which is necessary.  This dynamic will shift in THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO.

My two favorite performances of the evening were delivered by Naomi O’Connell as the charming Rosine whose nicely delineated moments of happiness, despair, and confusion were delightful to watch and Derek Smith’s Bartolo.  Bartolo always seems to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and his wonderfully stylized mannerisms and delivery support that characterization perfectly.  Smith’s Bartolo is an amiable curmudgeon who delights audiences with his complaints like “If people didn’t drop things, no one would be talking about gravity.”  During the evening, I often found myself wishing that Green had channeled some of Smith’s energies.

The physical production for this play is quite nice although the set by Charles Corcoran is rather monochromatic and drably painted.  Regardless of the validity of the color choices, from the audience, it gives little visual variety and is a bit somber.  The colors wash out under the theatre-lighting to a flat beige and gray.  The two-tiered design itself is impressive, and it gives the characters ample playing room.

Camille Assaf’s costumes are nicely detailed and appropriate, and Joan Arhelger’s lighting is serviceable but offers no special notes.  Everything was just nicely designed; it just seems as though there was a conscious effort to underplay the result which gives the production no sparkle.  I’m not saying that there should be bright colors and lights, just that there should be some focal points to ease the flatness of the visual, some special visuals to go with some special moments being offered on stage.

Wadsworth has given audiences another gem in this translation/adaptation.  These characters have survived for over two hundred years because they are special, and with lines that read, “Public service and private gain at the same time – it’s morally unimpeachable,” one can see why.  Their essence lives on.  Wadsworth’s direction is generally well paced after a slow opening, and he allows the characters time to grow and mature throughout the production.  He obviously trusts the material and allows things to happen rather than forcing them on his audiences which is refreshing.

My quibbles with the production and a few of the performances are just that: quibbles.  They are minor in the grand scheme of the evening, and this production, on the whole, is wonderful.  THE BARBER OF SEVILLE at the McCarter Theatre is a well presented, silly bit of charming entertainment, and it is a fabulous reminder of how enjoyable a well-crafted play can be.

THE BARBER OF SEVILLE continues in repertory with THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO through May 4 in the Matthews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place in Princeton, NJ 08540.  For information, call (609) 258-2787 or visit their website at http://www.mccarter.org.

Adam Green, Derek Smith, and Neal Bledsoe

Adam Green, Derek Smith, and Neal Bledsoe in THE BARBER OF SEVILLE at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ.  – photo by T. Charles Erickson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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