No Deceit: Lantern Theater’s Scapin is a Treat

Photos by Jeffrey StockbridgeA classic work of comic literature, a joyous reworking by one of the best clowns in modern theater, an imaginative staging by a top-class Philadelphia company, and puppets: the stage is set for a night of great theatrical entertainment. In Scapin, Bill Irwin and Mark O’Donnell’s adaptation of the Molière comedy Les Fourberies deScapin (“Scapin’s Deceptions”), the Lantern Theater Company has hit comic gold.

Molière is recognized as a genius of French theater, and the comic structure of Scapin provides a great framework: two frivolous young men defy their grumpy aristocratic fathers to pursue women apparently below their stations. Benjamin Lloyd channels Irwin’s clownlike best in a superb turn as the wily servantScapin, whose deceits and trickeries guide the complex plot and provide for much of the comedy.

The genius of the Lantern’s production lays in the fantastical world which director Aaron Cromie’s builds around Molière’s comic framework and Irwin’s playfully written lead. Lloyd is the only wholly human cast member in Cromie’s staging. The supporting cast is composed of puppets and half-puppets. Designed by Cromie and whimsically costumed by Mary Folino, the hybrid players fit the roles perfectly: the harebrained young men have expressive human heads and diminutive limbs that speak to their triviality; their tightfisted fathers have permanently scowling puppet heads and proportionately long human arms that befit their overbearing demeanors; the three female characters have slight, hand-puppet builds suitable to roles as foils in this world of masculine chicanery.

Lloyd’s masterful interaction with his mongrel costars is aided by a fanciful transformation of the St. Stephen’s Theater (where the Lantern has residence) into a tightly packed, cartoonish Venetian cityscape. This intimate set-up, quite unlike any I have seen at the theater, brings the action right up to the audience.

The staging emphasizes the obvious conceit of the performance. Molière’s plot includes “unbelievable coincidences,” but these are signposted (literally) and played up for comic effect; the organist is acknowledged as a player in the production; many of the jokes are self-referential—we know we are watching a spectacle and delight in our willing suspension of disbelief.

Irwin and O’Donnell’s acclaimed adaptation made a 17th century work contemporary, updating Molière’s humor without changing its comedic core. The world of puppets opens new possibilities for humor, raising the fun level to another level altogether.

I spent my childhood in England, where there is a long tradition of holiday pantomimes—raucous entertainments for both parents and kids. These annual treats provide a great introduction to the theater. I would strongly encourage parents to take their kids to the Lantern’s Scapin. The humor is quick witted and the laughs are continuous and varied: slapstick, political, double entendre, silly, and insightful. This is theater at its best.

Scapin by Bill Irwin and Mark O’Donnell (Adapted from Jean Baptiste Molière)
Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen’s Theater
10th and Ludlow (between Market and Chestnut sts.)
On stage through January 3rd, 2010
Tickets $10–$35 or 215-829-0395

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