Paris in the years just before World War I was a magical city. In later years, that fortunate time was dubbed “la belle epoque” – the beautiful era. It was a time of great art and music – Toulouse Lautrec, Matisse, the young Picasso, Debussy, Satie, the young Stravinsky, to name a few. It was the heyday of the can-can and the cabaret culture of the Moulin Rouge. And it was a time of great peace and prosperity, compared to what came too soon after. It was also an era when the middle classes began to realize a degree of unprecedented affluence. These nouveaux riches – the newly rich, who shared few of the values of the aristocratic classes – were the natural targets of satirists and comic writers, especially the popular Parisian playwright Georges Feydeau.
Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear (La Puce a l’oreille, in French) was written in 1907, and it is a hilarious sendup of the nouveaux riches and the many who flocked to Paris from other countries to partake of the heady atmosphere of the time. It makes the most of the contrast between the opulent lives of the rich bourgeoisie and the lowlife culture that provided the spice of life for the masses.
The plot revolves around insurance executive Victor Chandebise and his wife Raymonde, who live a life of respectable prosperity until Raymonde finds evidence that her husband is having an affair. Unsure how to respond, she confides in her old friend Lucienne, who suggests a ruse to ensnare the cheating husband. They send him a letter purporting to be from a female admirer who suggests a rendezvous at the Frisky Puss Hotel, the belle epoque equivalent of a hot-sheets motel. What could possibly go wrong with such an ingenious plan? That’s what the play is about!
Feydeau sprinkles in the time-honored devices of farce with a free hand, including mistaken and false identities, conniving servants, marital infidelity, threats of violence, and that favorite target of French satirists, silly foreigners. It’s very much a play of its era, mocking pretensions of all sorts, but also making fun of those who fall short of “proper” behavior or who have some “comic” disability, such as one character with a speech defect.
Church Hill Theatre’s production, directed by Toph Wallace, is based on a 2006 adaptation by David Ives. Wallace said after the show Saturday night that he was attracted to the play because of his admiration for Ives, who in addition to a considerable body of original work has done a number of adaptations of classic French comedies, as well as a version of Mark Twain’s Is He Dead?, which played at CHT a few years ago.
“I’m a gonna kill you!” Bradley Chaires as Victor Chandebise and Howard Mesick as the Spaniard Don Carlos in “A Flea in Her Ear” at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell
This production brings together some of the area’s best comic talent, in roles that give them ample opportunity to crack up the audience. Brad Chaires, who has been one of the mainstays at the Garfield Center in recent seasons, plays Victor, and his deadpan approach to the strait-laced insurance man is right on target. In many ways a true innocent, Victor ironically gets into more trouble than the shadier characters around him — especially after he winds up at the Frisky Puss Hotel. In his first speaking role at Church Hill, Chaires gets a real showcase for his talents.
Hester Sachse, CHT’s executive manager, takes the stage in the role of Raymonde, and she is in her element as the suspicious wife. She does a good job conveying her character’s real concern for the marriage while moving effectively into the comic consequences of her plot to uncover the truth. Is Victor faithful or isn’t he? She will do anything, go anywhere to find out. Even to the notorious Frisky Puss Hotel!
Robbie Spray, recently seen in the Garfield Center’s Tiny Tim’s Christmas Carol, gets the part of Camille, Victor’s nephew, who suffers from a speech defect. The role could easily turn awkward, but Spray keeps its comic elements in focus, with a nice physical performance adding to the fun.
Dan Guidice, also making his Church Hill debut, is cast as Romain Tournel, Victor’s business partner – who, as it turns out, has a desperate crush on Raymonde. To his chagrin, she is willing to entertain his attentions only in a platonic way. But a mixed message gives him hopes… Guidice makes it all convincing – and better still, amusing.
Raymonde’s best friend Lucienne Hominedies de Histangua is played by Natalie Lane. The wife of a hot-tempered Spaniard, she acts as confidante and instigator of the plot at the heart of the play – only to end up in trouble herself. Lane also effectively handles exchanges – in rapid Spanish – with her jealous husband. It’s hard to believe that during the day, Natalie is a children’s librarian at the Kent County Library!
The versatile Howard Mesick plays the role of Don Carlos, Lucienne’s husband with plenty of fire and comic menace. While the character is a stereotype bordering on the outrageous, Mesick makes it good fun as he stomps across the stage, brandishing a pistol and speaking a mile a minute, both in broken English and fluent Spanish.
Herb Ziegler gets a nice part as the owner of the Frisky Puss Hotel, an ex-military man who is used to being obeyed, especially by his slow-witted bellboy, Poche. It’s fun to watch his overreaction as things begin to go haywire in the second act. A nice turn by a veteran of the local theater.
A large cast of minor characters includes Charles Michael Moore, Minnie Maloney, Shannon Whitaker, and Mary Zober, playing Victor’s servants and the staff of the Frisky Puss. Steve Atkinson has an amusing part as Baptiste, who spends almost his entire time in bed, serving as a decoy in case the police or suspicious spouses come calling. Troy Strootman plays a stereotypical — and combative — Englishman staying at the hotel. And Bryan Jon Zajchowski plays Dr. Finache, the medical examiner at the insurance company. The doctor, it turns out, visits the best fashionable parlors during the day and then visits the Frisky Puss in the evening. All get their comic bits, and all are thoroughly entertaining.
Almost as impressive as any of the performances is the wonderful set – which changes from the Chandebise’s elegant living room to the tawdry Frisky Puss Hotel and back again in the intermissions. A good part of the audience sat and watched as the crew made the transformation – a magical piece of stagecraft in and of itself. Kudos to Shelagh Grasso for the design and Carmen Grasso, Tom Rhodes and Jim Johnson for building it. And to stage manager Michelle Christopher and her crew for their fascinating and precisely choreographed set changes on wheels. The costumes, by Juanita Wieczoreck, capture the flavor of the elegant era flawlessly.
Feydeau is in many ways a reflection of the attitudes of his time, with social and cultural assumptions that seem shallow from the distance of a century, but he has an eagle eye for the little hypocrisies and character flaws that are the essence of satiric comedy. The play, as much as those of say, Gilbert and Sullivan, is by default a period piece – but it is a delicious period piece, not to be missed. And the cast – under Wallace’s first-class direction – brings both physical and verbal energy to the script. If you’re in the mood for laughter – and who couldn’t use a good laugh, these days? – be sure to go see it.
Young children will probably enjoy the show because of all the running around and general silliness. But they will probably not understand much of the more adult implications. There is no bad or explicit language– remember it was 1907! And Ives has faithfully preserved that aspect of the period. But the double entendres, sexy innuendoes, and witty euphemisms provide much of the humor as the characters attempt to talk about adult matters without using any anatomical or vulgar terms. It’s quite a trick but with hilarious facial expressions and gestures, they succeed beautifully.
A Flea in Her Ear will be playing through the weekend of April 14. Shows are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for CHT members and $10 for students. For reservations, call the theater at 410-556-6003 or visit the theater website at www.churchhilltheatre.org.