Three Farces

At Eliot House through March 1

"Did you think it was any good?" said someone as we were coming out of the theatre.

"Yes and no," I said.

These farces come from Renaissance Spain, medieval France, and seventeenth century Denmark. This is almost enough to restore one's faith in the doctrine of progress: nearly everything good about the occasion is supplied by Eliot House, which is, after all, more or less of a twentieth century institution. Since, on top of everything else, the translations tend towards the unspeakable, it was actors and directors vs. plays all evening. I scored it a loss, a draw, and a win.

The Judge of the Divorce Court is by Miguel de Cervantes, who was supposed to have written Don Quixote while in jail. Now we have an idea of what he was jugged for. The play presents several couples who appeal to the judge for divorces, and do not get them. Then somebody else comes in and complains about his wife, while nobody (either onstage or in the audience) listens. Then two musicians sing a song, and that's all. At the end, none of the characters is any better off than before, and neither is the audience.

Obviously this sort of script calls for desperate measures. John D. Hancock, who directed, has taken them, but they are the wrong ones. In his efforts to stir up laughter, he has employed books, scrolls, wineskins, spectacles, a rolling pin, a gavel, quill pens, a pitcher, drinking glasses, an earring, a pogo stick, and a live rabbit, among other things. If the rabbit could have been induced to misbehave on cue, I have no doubt but that this would also have been added to the pleasures of the occasion. The cast performs with commendable energy, which might better have been spend doing pushups, or spading up a victory garden.

Things get much better very quickly after that. Master Pierre Patelin is an ancient and anonymous French piece beloved of high school French teachers, who are not in all respects exactly like the rest of us. The complicated plot concerns a disreputable lawyer who cheats others and who is himself cheated, and never would intrigue have been less intriguing, except for an excellent actor by the name of John Casey. Mr. Casey sweats not, neither does he strain. He plays the shifty Patelin as one of those people who, when they are not leaning against something, contrive somehow to appear to be leaning against themselves; relaxed, charming, and funny. William D. Gordy has directed a cheerful and reasonably no-sweat performance, punctuated with occasional bits of funny-business, several of which are funny. If the script had not been one that only a high school French teacher could love, the results might have been quite pleasant.

Ludvig's Holberg's The Healing Spring is under the tutelage of Mr. Hancock again. He has laid unholy hands on it, which was a good idea, since it has one of those comic opera plots which are usually best left to Mozart or Rossini or the Comedie Francaise or oblivion. Mr. Hancock has moved it--by the scruff of the neck--to southern California, and changed the characters to modern types. None of these types is original. Most of them, oddly enough, are very funny. The hero is portrayed as the sort of healthy youth who hung around with Superboy in the halcyon days of Superman D.C. publications; his friend becomes a bop musician temporarily without an instrument; the footman becomes one of those stereotyped Mexicans, all sombrero and somnolence; and so on. Joel Crothers, Joel Henning, and Al Graubard, respectively, play these roles, and Caroline Cross is the heroine. What they lack in finesse (a good deal, for some of them), they make up with luck in being associated with a generally good thing.

Farce tends to make Harvard actors foresake the search for truth in favor of mugging and running around, and none of these three productions is exempt from this tendency. As indicated above, there are compensations (Jane Fishburne's imaginative costumes comprise another.) But whoever exhumed these scripts deserves a citation for industry very far beyond the call of duty. There is something exhilarating about a triumph over a script that has outlived its audience-appeal, but there is something even more exhilarating about a successful collaboration with a good one