...Two Plays in One

Figaro directed by Giles Havergal at the Loeb, May 4-6

IT SOUNDED LIKE a great idea: combining two enormously popular works into one massive play, which would cover topics ranging from romance, inequality and greed, and would even stay funny while doing it. But as wonderfully acted and produced as the Loeb's version of Robert MacDonald's adaptation of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro is, it lacks a certain something. Maybe the idea works for breath mints, but somehow putting two, two, two plays in one just doesn't quite make it.

Before discussing the script, thought, it is only fair to give the Loeb players their due; and certainly, they deserve a rave. From Jon Goerner, who balances Figaro's cynical honesty with just the right degree of humor, to Linda Cameron, Figaro's master's love, to Jonathan Prince, the hilarious flunky who serves the highest bidder, the cast is one of the best assembled in some time at the Loeb. If at times we are given a few too many slapstick gags, these times are few. For the most part, the buffoonery is nicely balanced by a moment now and then of seriousness, and any critical comments about the acting would be unjustifiable. Giles Havergal, a true professional brought over from Scotland, ably directed the show, and the cast seems to have had no trouble coming up to his level.

Similarly, the Loeb's crew has done a spectacular job with all the technical aspects of the production. From the opening moments, the play is a riot of color, with elaborate costumes, scenery and lighting giving the show a wonderfully festive air. Like the actors, the technical staff has done its best to keep Figaro from dragging. And its best is very, very good.

Figaro doesn't fall on its face, by any means; but it comes close enough to make one wonder at the disparity between the production and the book. It's hard to figure out quite what the problem is, but as the play moves into its third hour, it begins to dawn on you. Basically, this is two plays, with two not-quite-linked plots put on either side of the intermission.

To some extent, the connection can be made: both plays are about romances, both involve the relationship between a rather stupid nobleman and his bright, if not well-born, valet, and both go through intricate plots before the romance proves successful. There, however, the connection ends.


The Barber of Seville (which comes in the first half) is a comedy, in which the intelligent barber aids a romantically inclined count (James Bundy) to gain the hand of the object of the count's affection, stealing the beautiful Rosina from under the nose of her nasty guardian (Ralph Zito). All ends well, he who laughs last laughs best, and--though we are left with a measure of sympathy for the ward-less guardian--the curtain closes on the first half with great good humor.

The Marriage of Figaro, at least as presented in this version, is a little less cutesy. To begin with, there's a major shift in mood: Figaro is not straight comedy, which The Barber certainly is. Instead, it is a fairly cynical look at marriage (the four-years-later episode of Count Almaviva and Rosina's romance), the master-servant relationship (the Count repays Figaro's first act help by demanding the droit du signeur of Figaro's bride), all made more complicated than necessary by intrigues and mishaps. The cast manages generally to overcome the mood-change by keeping the tone as lighthearted as possible and by stressing funny one-liners ("his pockets were full of persuasive arguments," is offered as an explanation for human fickleness). But frequently, the buffoonery seems to go against the playwright's intent. In addition, the effort to maintain a certain amount of continuity between acts requires a rather confusing set of blood-ties between characters; at times it would be helpful if the Loeb provided a geneology of the sort that comes tucked inside long Russian novels.

Excellent acting, particularly by Figaro and his bride (Amy Aquino) overcomes some of the drawbacks of this half, while comic interludes are provided by Dan Breslin as an adolescent Casanova. Still, the loose ends remain apparent--personified, perhaps, in the totally inexplicable presence of an onstage onlooker in the balcony, whose only involvement in the play seems to be to make sound effects and yawn at the stupidities of the mortals beneath him.

There is an argument to be made in favor of the playwright, suggesting that the link between the plays was essentially a political one. In this light, Figaro would have to stress the inequality of the friendship between man and master, as seen in Count Almaviva's failure to return Figaro's help in the second half of the play. That argument, however, would have little evidence to support it except the final chorus, which includes lines like, "But hear the thunder from the left, denouncing property as theft," and is sung to the tun of the British Labour Party's song ("The People's Flag is Deepest Red"). While there are other lines in the play that hint at a political interpretation--money breeds money, especially through corruption, we are told--these are generally passed over by the cast. And not surprisingly, either: it would take a true fanatic to turn an 18th-century farce into guerrilla theater.

But, really, this is taking the whole thing a bit too seriously--something that contradicts the whole spirit of the Loeb's production, which plays every breath to the hilt--including the atrocious Spanish sprinkled through the dialogue. Figaro is clearly the best Loeb production of the spring, and it would be unfair to demand much more.