Belle Époque Humor Amuses in Adams

Norman R. Shapiro ’51 has been affiliated with Adams House for several decades. During the 1940s and 50s, before the college began using randomization to assign student housing, he reveled in the house’s strong artistic community and later became a house tutor.

“Even when I went off to make a living in the real world,” he says, “I found that I was never so far that I couldn’t come back.”

Shapiro is currently a professor of Romance languages and literature at Wesleyan University and a renowned translator of French plays, poetry, and literature. Conveniently, his professional work tends to overlap with his work in Adams; he contributes to the House’s “French Farcefest,” which has occurred semiannually for the past 20 years. “They always seem to be translations of mine,” he says of past productions.

The latest of these productions is “Léonie est en avance ou le mal joli”—translated by Shapiro to mean “The Pregnant Pause or Love’s Labor Lost” —an obscure 1911 one-act farce written by French playwright Georges Feydeau.

During Europe’s “Golden Age,” also known as the Belle Époque, “[Feydeau] ruled the comic stage,” Shapiro says. Yet “The Pregnant Pause,” which is showing in Adams House tonight and tomorrow, is one of a group of plays that reflect a darker period in Feydeau’s life and career. “[The play] is very funny, very farcical,” Shapiro says, but it is still a departure from Feydeau’s more common fare, which normally consists of “three acts, slamming doors, going up and down staircases, [and] people being caught in places they aren’t supposed to be.”

The two translations of Feydeau’s title evoke the tensions surrounding Hector Ennepeque, Feydeau’s semi-autobiographical main character, as he waits for his wife Léonie to give birth. His anxiety is exacerbated by snobby in-laws and a domineering midwife. Though the character of the midwife was a pushy Frenchwoman in the Feydeau original, Shapiro’s translation renders her a robust “German frau.”

“I thought it would be a little funnier to create this Valkyrie-type character,” he says.

Shapiro takes a “certain amount of liberty” with Feydeau’s work, as well as with all the works he translates. “[A translator] can’t go word for word, sentence for sentence. Something that was funny to audiences in 1895 or 1910 might not be funny now,” he explains. “There’s a responsibility to the text, and you have to be faithful to the plot, but also make people laugh. The translator definitely leaves his or her mark.”

This spirit of adaptation applies to the production of the play itself. According to Shapiro, the original intent of French farce performances in Adams House was to invite a professional director to live in the house for a brief period of time in order to get to know the students before putting on a play. The auditions used to be open only to Adams residents, but more recently, it became increasingly difficult to consistently choose a full cast roster strictly from within the house. “Instead of ending a tradition,” Shapiro says, “we opened auditions up to the rest of the school and the public.”

“The Pregnant Pause” is being directed by 2005 Boston College graduate Krista D’Agostino, co-founder of Holland Productions, a company that “promotes the female voice on Boston stages.”

D’Agostino performed in an Adams production back in 2006. “I had a ton of fun doing it back in 2006, so I joined in on the directorial level,” she says. The entire cast of “The Pregnant Pause” is drawn from D’Agostino’s company. “People are doing so many different things that it’s hard to find [only Harvard actors],” she says.

In keeping with Shapiro’s reinterpretation of the text, D’Agostino also plans to stage the production differently from Feydeau’s original. “Just so people don’t have too much of an impression of what they’re going to see already coming into the show, we’re going for a timeless approach,” she says. “Just making sure that the intention is there, audience members will still get the intention, even if the language isn’t casual, like you hear everyday,” she says, “that’s actually the fun of it.”