Comedie Francaise: Moliere
"L'impromptu de Versailles" and "Les Fourberies de Scapin," tonight at 8:30. "Tartuffe," today at 2:30 and Sunday at 2.00 and 8:30.
L'Impromptu de Versailles is a play within a play within a play within a play, and the theme of all the plays is--plays. The Pirandelloid construction gives Moliere, who played the part of Moliere in the original production at Versailles, a chance to parody his critics, the actors in opposing companies, Corneille, courtiers, and a variety of inexpressibly minor playwrights. What is more, he sets up standards of performance which the Comedie Francaise has been achieving (with few lapses) ever since. The play is slight, compared to Moliere's more serious or more farcical efforts, but its brilliant wit and perfect construction make it no more dated than, say, Blake's or Pope's jibes at their contemporaries.
The part of Moliere is played by George Descrieres, who bears a jarring resemblance to Moliere as he appears in the portraits we have of him. Descrieres and the rest of the company give smooth and wonderfully articulate performances. Each surprise, each change in style and tone, was carried off with a kind of grace I have never seen duplicated in an American theater.
And that was just the curtain raiser.
Les Fourberies de Scapin, a pure and wild farce, is one of the company's outstanding productions, which is to say that it is among the greatest productions given anywhere in the world. The set is a masterpiece of brilliance and balance; each costume expresses the character of the actor who wears it, and each is designed with the most subtle awareness of how its colors will complement those of the set; at any given instant the placement of actors on the stage is perfectly arranged; the audience's eyes are always guided to where the action is going on; and there is always action.
Robert Hirsch, who plays Scapin, combines violent exuberance and beautiful control reminiscent of the best of the silent film comedians. Mime, pantomine, and contortion are all arts he has mastered: he is a wheezing old man, then a flopping puppet, then a cowering servant, then a victorious plotter. And the roles are all convincing and hilarious.
None of the secondary parts require such virtuosity, but each of the minor actors has his own excellence. Jacques Charon, as a dim-witted, oafish servant manages to steal a scene even from Hirsch; Michel Aumont, an old miser, and Rene Camoin, an old wheezer, are unsurpassable; Micheline Boudet, believed to be an Egyptian gypsy (but in reality a long lost daughter of the old wheezer) has one scene all to herself, a scene which slowly and carefully raises the level of the audience's laughter from smiles to belly-laughs, one of the greatest scenes in the play.
The only possible cavil is that the actors occasionally seemed to exert themselves a little too much; the style seemed not quite effortless enough. But to delight a first night audience full of Brahmins who understood no French required a little exertion.