February 13, 1978

   Tours de Farce

Written by Jack Kroll

The adventures of Andrei Serban continue.  Like some brilliant theatrical vagabond, the 34-year-old Romanian-born director ricochets from classic to classic, from Chekhov to Aeschylus to Strindberg - and now, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, to Moliere in SGANARELLE: AN EVENING OF MOLIERE FARCES.  The results of this latest foray are scintillating, delightful, hugely entertaining, perhaps even - God help us - profound.  There's no more interesting figure at work in theater today than this daring young man who brings new life to whatever he touches.

Serban's Moliere is not the complex dramatist of "The Misanthrope" but the man who was called by his contemporaries "the god of laughs."  Sganarelle, the hero of the four rough-and-tumble farces that make up the program, was Moliere's answer to Scaramouche, the popular comic character of the Italian troupe that rivaled Moliere's own in mid-seventeenth-century Paris.

Intrigue: Sganarelle was Moliere's all-purpose shlemiel: in "The Flying Doctor" he is a servant who helps his master in an amorous intrigue; in "The Forced Marriage" he's a fatuous middle-aged boureois who contracts a disastrous marriage with a young girl; in "Sganarelle" he's a husband who imagines that his wife is cheating on him; in "A Dumb Show," based on "The Doctor in Spite of Himself," he's a wine-bibbing woodcutter who becomes a phony physician.

Serban gets himself into hot water with some critics by his unorthodox ways with the classics.  But he's always looking for the vital principle at the heart of the play, and here he finds it in what Moliere called tout le jeu du theatre, which really means every scurvy and sublime trick in the theatrical book.  Serban's stage seethes with unstoppable energy: the costumes designed by Dunya Ramicova attack the eye with Day-Glo colors against Michael Yeargan's bright white sets; it's like a carnival bivouacking in your mind's eye.

For the roustabouts in this carnival Serban has chosen to work with many of the student actors who make up part of the Yale rep company.  He wants their freshness and openness, and it pays off, especially with Mark Linn Baker, who is sensationally funny as the fake in "The Flying Doctor," pretending to treat a young girl so that his master can get her away from the clutches of her father.  Baker's splendidly innocent face switches instantly between lackey and savant; faced with the problem of testing a urine sample, he solves matters by quaffing it with the haughty aplomb of a wine taster.  The hilarious climax comes when Baker, with Chaplinesque adroitness, appears to be two people arguing in a window.

What makes one person funnier than another is a metaphysical mystery.  As the Sganarelle who imagines adultery, Michael Gross has the tall, collapsible skeleton of a Ray Bolger; he mimes the comic terror of cuckroldry with admirable ferocity, at one point literally pole-vaulting into the audience in his frenzy.  But Gross is just not as funny a guy as Baker.  Eugene Troobnick is the most poignant Sganarelle, talking himself into marrying a young b--ch who he knows will break his heart, then trying unsuccessfully to get out of it and finally walking to his connubial fate like a condemned man his knees buckling as he's pelted with celebratory rice.

"The Doctor in Spite of Himself" is Serban's tour de force.  This is the noisiest "Dumb Show" in the world.  Abandoning Albert Bermel's translations, the actors perform in a hilarious doubletalk that makes everything as clear as cracked cyrstal.  Here, language itself becomes aural farce, a farrago of verbal gestures matching and reinforcing the breakneck ballet that drives Moliere's characters on their obsessive ways.  When Richard Grusin, the most bawdy of the Signarelles, gets a mute girl to speak, out comes the flawless English of Queen Elizabeth II.  With dazzling wit, Serban shows that for Moliere language was both the ultimate eloquence and the ultimate mask.