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Moliere's 'Dandin'

At the Hotel Bostonian through July 22

By Caldwell Titcomb

History's greatest specialist in creating stage comedy, Moliere, has been chosen for the inaugural production of a newly formed theatrical group, the Actors Playhouse of Boston, Inc. The players are making use of an intimate and attractive gree-and-gold theatre designed by Raymond Sovey in the Hotel Bostonian, and tailored to accommodate an audience of ninety-five.

The troupe has done us a great service in making available, from Moliere's body of thirty or so works, one of the most rarely performed--George Dandin, or the Bamboozled Husband. In fact, its only previous professional production in English anywhere in the U.S. was given by Eugene O'Neill's Provincetown Players in the mid-twenties.

Dandin, while not one of Moliere's crowning achievements like Doin Juan and Tartuffe, is still a masterpiece of its own kind. Betterton, the foremost English actor of the Restoration, thought is worth translating as a vehicle for himself; and Gounod was going to make an opera of it.

The play has only three fairly short acts, for it was originally interspersed with divertissements of song and dance as part of a festival celebrating the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1668. (This year was a significant one for French culture, since it saw also the birth of Couperin and the publication of the fables of La Fontaine; and it gave us Les Plaideurs of Racine, who, then at odds with Moliere, made fun of him by naming one of the judges in his play George Dandin.)

Moliere's Dandin does not so much tell a story as examine a set of related topics. Its three acts are essentially a series of analytical variations on a theme. The central situation is easily stated: a rich bourgeois tradesman is married to a beautiful young noblewoman, who cuckolds; him by striking up with a passing youth but is always clever enough to make her husband seem in the wrong.

In this work the playwright drew on a number of sources ("Je prends mon bien ou je le trouve," he was fond of saying), including Aristophanes, Plautus, Boccaccio, and an earlier farce of his own. Added significance lies in the fact that Moliere was at the time having marital troubles of his own with his young adulterous wife Armande, which may account in part for the bitter tone of the play (though the title role itself is only sympathetic by comparison).

The three characters mentioned, each with a servant, plus the wife's parents make up the eight personages in the play. Moliere's chief concern, as usual, was the portrayal of character rather than the construction of plot. And rarely does one of his characters change in the course of a play (like Orgon in Tartuffe). Here, there is no real denouement; Dandin finally exclaims that the best thing for him to do would be to go drown himself head first. But of course he won't and he will go right on being outwitted by his wife. For it was Moliere's thesis -- and a highly tenable one -- that fools do not profit from experience. And he shared with Voltaire the belief that the most effective way of teaching the few non-fools in the world was by ridiculing folly.

The writing in Dandin is rather loose, but Moliere was careful that each act would top the previous one. He noted down a good deal of the comic byplay; but, just as certainly, he intended the performance to be decked out with a lot of improvised farce, in the tradition of the Italian commedia dell'arte, for which French Baroque court circles had an overwhelming passion.

Commedia dell'arte features abound in this play, and director Samuel Hirsch and costumer Phil Robb were quick to emphasize the connections. It would of course be too much to expect the players to have evolved a really consistent style of ensemble comedy in a few weeks, but the current production is more than adequate, and three of the performances are top-notch. (I do, however, miss in the updated translation the wonderful old repertory of varied expletives that pepper the text).

As Dandin (which Moliere himself played, and whose name has become a generic term for a nincompoop), George Bolton is sufficiently successful. His un-stage-English accent is appropriate for one who is supposed to be incapable of acquiring even a veneer of upper-class manner and speech. But he does not capture enough of Dandin's vanity. The role is modeled on the stock Pantalone of Italian comedy, and Bolton wears Pantalone's traditional long beard and long black cloak.

Penny Hays, in a pink and lavender dress trimmed with white lace, is absolutely ravishing as the shameless, lying wife Angelique (note Moliere's ironic use of this traditional name from Italian farce); it is easy to understand how anyone would want to seduce her, married or not. Angelique is, not to mince words, a bitch in lamb's clothing, a sort of female lago; and Miss Hays does her just right.

As Angelique's unscrupulous lover Clitandre, Jay V. Pati is perfectly cast: he is handsome has a winning smile with gleaming white teeth, knows how to use his rich baritone voice, and moves with grace.

Clitandre's servant Lubin is played by Robin Ramsay quite legitimately as a Harlequin, complete with the customary white-face and diamond-patch costume. Making frequent use of a real slapstick in hand, he cavorts about with unflagging athleticism, and also functions as the troupe's impresario. With matching costume, Susan Baldwin makes his opposite number, Angelique's servant Claudine, into a sort of Colombine: she needs to convey more of the character's cleverness.

Then there are Dandin's snobbish in-laws, M. and Mine, Sotenville--who are indeed, as their name suggests, the town fools. Dixie Bolton puts over much of Madame's vanity and prudery; but most impressive of all is her outrageous costume: a blue and green gown, with a hat adorned by yellow, pink and blue plumes, and a black fan.

that Jack Davidson looks too young for Monsieur and was not entirely in command of his lines at the opening, since he stepped in on short notice for an ailing actor. His yellow-plumed cap and his baldric and sword underscore the dolt's infatuation with the prerogatives of nobility; and it is quite in keeping with his character that he punctuates his talk by garbling an irrelevant Latin proverb (not in the text). Since the croupe has four men and four women, Dandin's sleepy valet Colin has been turned into a maidservant, Collette, with no detriment, thanks to Karen Lee Monko.

Alan J. Levitt has designed a traditional commedia dell'arte set for the small stage: a public street and fence symmetrically flanked by two doorways.

This production is strong on the play's farcical side. But one should not lose sight of the serious problems Moliere was raising: inter-class alliances; attitudes toward money; the conditions for a happy marriage; the upbringing of young ladies; the force of ambition; mismatched I.Q.'s. And the favorite subject that crops up in almost every play Moliere wrote: hypocrisy.

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