A Flea in Her Ear
At the Loeb March 4 and 5, 8-11
Come you bed-pressers and plate-lickers, sophists, and cynics, come to the Loeb and see Georges Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear. Feydeau has the world's number. Laurence Senelick, the director and translator, has Feydeau's number. Anyone who makes it to the theatre will roar his ribs out.
A Flea in Her Ear is an island of ferocious madcap in the art nouveau Paris of 1900. It is farce in the glorious tradition of farce, a cauldron of mistaking: the proper insurance broker husband, Victor-Emmanuel (Steve Kaplan) has a double who spends a besotted life waiting on the proprietor of the infamous Pretty Pussy hotel. The cleft-palleted innocent, Camille (Howard Cutler) is a well-juiced womanizer. Even the wife of the hotel manager is not the frowzy pile of heavy flesh she seems, for there was a time when she was served up nude on a silver platter. Flea is a wildly funny play--but not a kind one. Above the laughter you can sometimes hear Malvolio crying for help in his dark cell.
Senelick's translation from the French is unspeakably good. He has wisely used current Americanisms to give the language the proper effervescense and irreverance. To render the play in early twentieth century American would have been a gray business: nothing is as dead as dead slang. Senelick's greatest triumph is his version of a Spaniard (Daniel Deitch) speaking English. Gerund endings are assiduously dropped where they should be; b's and v's are assaulted with appropriate force.
Unfortunately Deitch is not always true to the script and his accent sometimes sounds like Fu Manchu angry.
But Deitch makes no other mistakes. He has fire; he is the old time villain with skulking strikes and waving arms. The audience hears him off-stage and starts to chuckle. Elbows awhirl, tongue rattling, he jumps on-stage, and laughter twitches bellies.
Kaplan too owns the stage. In everything I have seen him do before this show he has played the Flatbush gonif, the king of the muzuzahed one-liners. In Flea he acts. Eyes, face, tummy--everything is part of the comic arsenal. Kaplan's timing and moves are astonishing. He never walks but rather changes from shuffle to trudge to leap to glide. And like the true master of high comedy he never bruises a line or gesture by offering it up before the audience is ready.
Kathryn Walker is excellent as Raymonde, the wife whose romantic pranks and stolid middle-class sympathies recall Tom Sawyer and his day-dream exploits. Although not as fluid as Kaplan, she has caught the silliness necessary to her part, and her voice is the high piping it should be.
Many of the smaller parts were nicely done. Cutler, by some magic process, manages to make humor out of grotesque, voweled mumbling--and, more important, keeps the device from swelling into a gigantic bore. Clayton Koelb is a lusty schnitzel, the Viennese whose speech problem is ignorance of French. Koelb's German is clean, his legs are in fine order, and his desire to bed some Fraulein is unshakable.
Francine Stone presents a fine cameo as the chambermaid, as does Raye Bush as the wife of the hotel keeper. Miss Stone's encounter with the Spaniard's wife (Amanda Vaill) is one of the most skillfully done of the numerous incidents connecting life in the insurance broker's apartment and the people at the Pretty Pussy. When the women unconsciously exchange what they are carrying -- Lucienne's parasol for Eugenie's pail -- we are reminded of just how much fraud we are seeing.
I did not care for Miss Vaill's performance. She remains far too sane and above the action of the play, entering the games only when the script forces her to. Lacking the throughgoing cruelty of the other characters she offers nothing in its place and contributes to the dullness, soon banished, which stains the first act.
The others who consort to slow the pace are the butler (Prentice Claflin). Doctor Finache (David Wilkinson), and Antoinette the cook (Honor Moore). Claflin ranges about the stage, making himself disagreeable to the other characters and to us. Feydeau devoted at least several tablespoons of wit to the part, and Claflin ought to do better. Wilkinson's failure is difficult to explain. Physically he is suited to the part of an aging man of science and affair who still has an eye for the chorines. Unfortunately he is always a step or so behind the action, looking on but stepping aside to let the real characters go by. Miss Moore is no comedian.
Mark Ritts as the hotel proprietor is so-so. He is miscast -- a bigger, older man should play the retired army bully -- and it is difficult for him to achieve the ponderous viciousness he needs. As it is, he sounds like one of those characters who stuff tin cans in their boots and go kill people. Baptistin (Joshua Rubins), his uncle, is up to his vocation: groaning in a rheumatic passion on a revolving bed which swings into view in case of a raid.
Donald Soule's two sets, the apartment and the Pretty Pussy, fill the space tidily. They are pleasant enough, though there is little attempt to catch whatever subtleties there are in the period.
But an end to carping. The play makes you laugh and all complains dissolve in the mirth. What's left is worth having.