KPBS AIRDATE: January 29, 1992
Here comes a little acoustic quiz. Ready? See if you can identify this sound. (CLACKER SOUND) Give up? It’s a slapstick. The real source of the term, two flat pieces of wood that make a loud slapping sound when they’re hit against something, usually another person. Originated in the 16th Century, in the comic, improvisational Italian theater called “commedia dell’arte.”
And, in at least one of the two Molière plays currently at the Old Globe Theatre, the slapstick takes — and gives — a beating. In “The Flying Doctor,” the slapstick is used to hit and pummel, it doubles as a gun, simulates an erection and elicits all kinds of laughter from the audience. Well, this is early Molière, which borrowed heavily from commedia dell’arte. So, along with the slapstick, you can throw in other such high-brow activities as belching, passing wind and drinking urine. My heavens, at the Old Globe? And so soon after the clean-cut Plaid madness? Sure, this is comedy in its coarsest form, commedia and all its fun and foibles.
Director Edward Payson Call invokes the traditional commedia masks, moves and stock characters for this frothy curtain-raiser. It’s a quick 30 minutes, though the pace could be even crisper.
The plot is goofy, but it foreshadows much of Molière’s later, more mature works. There’s a lovesick girl, a crafty servant, and a bright young woman who hatches the idea for the servant to impersonate a doctor for the sake of the young lovers.
Everything is going according to plan, until the servant is discovered without his medical disguise. Then, he’s forced to invent a twin brother for the doctor. And the rest of the time, he literally flies in and out of a window, up and down from the ground to the second story, trying to be two people in two places at one moment. Tom Harrison is an agile, athletic actor, who pulls off all the ruses with aplomb. To see him battle himself, slap-stick himself and show both brothers together at the same time is nothing short of hilarious.
Harrison, like most of the cast, also plays a character in “The School for Husbands,” a slightly later, more sophisticated, but still lesser-known Molière play that slips seamlessly into action after the first piece, with no intermission. Here, we have a somewhat preachy play about How to handle a Woman, or the punishments and rewards of restrictive versus permissive parenting. And guess who comes up with the scheme for uniting another pair of young lovers? Another feisty young woman.
Though these plays differ enormously in style, they do so less in substance and content. And both translations are delightful, both done by Molière masters. “The Flying Doctor” is in not-so-prosaic prose. And this is a world premiere poetic translation of “The School for Husbands” — very clever, and eminently understandable.
The “Husbands” are put in a fairy tale setting of gingerbread houses and elaborate costumes. And there’s a neat juxtaposition of USD students and veteran actors. A nice little intro to Molière — and the original slapstick. Nothing deep and ponderous, but an evening that’s light, fluffy, fun — and filled with slapstick (SOUND OF SLAPSTICK) Hah- Gotcha!
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.