Predictable Pratfalls

The Three Cuckolds Directed by Michael S. E. Kaplan At the Loeb Drama Center

SLAPSTICK JUST DOESN'T WORK unless it's performed by people who can make you believe they are in continuous conflict with the physical world--anti-ballerinas, losing the battle to gravity. It's monstrously difficult to pull off, and hardly worth the trouble for all but the most natural clowns. No one in The Three Cuckolds betrays any flair for knockabout comedy, so it's hard to understand why the director. Michael S. E. Kaplan, chose to haul out this tedious commedia del l'arte piece and stage it, of all places, on the Loeb Mainstage, which swallows up all but the most stylistically assured productions.

Commedia del l'arte is renowned for its blend of spontaneity and old hat--stock characters, stock situations, stock slapstick bits continually reshaped according to the whims of its experienced performers and the peculiarities of the audience and the space. At the beginning of this production, when the actors lug in part of the set, throwing out lines like. "Anybody I know out there?" and "Small house tonight," they establish a quick and funny rapport with the audience. Then the "ad-libs" cease and the show sobers up. Great--sober commedia del l'arte by inexperienced actors on the Loeb Mainstage. With the orchestra pit unaccountably retained for a handful of musicians, it feels like watching a play from the opposite side of a lake.

Kaplan has made a game stab at filling the space. He had meticulously choreographed a procession of clever unsurprising slapstick turns, solemnly executed by actors who signal the coming of a collision, pratfall or somersault the way a five-year-old holds his nose before diving off a high board. Rather than using the company's limitations and giving us a slopping, ingratiating evening, the director offers us a museum piece--slapstick embalmed.

There is certainly comic potential in Jonathan Lemkin's black and white, three-dimensional wood-carving set, with three great, storybook houses rising out of a gorgeously detailed back-drop. But Alex Begin's harsh, bright lighting makes the set seem stark, even Beckettian. It comes to life only during an imaginative sunset-to-sunrise sequence in the second act, acquiring magical, mysterious depth. Valerie Hobb's colorful, deliriously clashing costumes also don't take the light particularly well--they look as if they could use a sprinkle of MSG to bring them out. But they are stuffed with modest, witty flourishes, and they would work if they had any connection with the set. Were the designers for The Three Cuckolds ever introduced to one another?

A charming lead might have compensated for much, but Peter Ginna is a lobotomized clown, a colorless mime, a plodding acrobat, barely competent without, dead within--a black hole. He is matched by John Cole, whose readings conjure up the printed page, and by Melissa Franklin in a grating, one-note performance. But there is very good work by Madora Thomson, whose fluent, hammy gestures and Bryn Mawr accent are both funny and seductive; by Christopher Randolph, an endearing, intelligent, convincingly lived-in old Pantalone, fresh vet familiar; and by the director, whose seemingly effortless, unctuous gigolo is a model of how this kind of comedy should be played. Good as his performance is, he would have done better absenting himself and spreading those good instincts around.