There’s something funny going on at Olney Theatre Center— “Fickle: A Fancy French Farce.” It’s glitzy and goofy, a modern-day amuse-bouche of a comedy. And it’s based on a classic Commedia dell’ Arte -inspired 18th century satire “The Double Inconstancy” by Pierre De Marivaux.
But don’t let that scare you.
“This play is just so funny,” explained Andy Reinhardt, the New York City-based actor who plays the wide-eyed rube Harlequin on the Olney stage through March 26. “So ridiculously good and funny—at the time, plays like this were so scandalous and exciting and they pushed people’s buttons and got them all riled up.
“That’s what farce meant back then.”
What it means now is that playwright Meg Miroshnik, director Eleanor Holdridge and a tightly woven cast of seven seek to create an afternoon of laughter and transport the audience with no strings attached—a perfect follow up to the dark delights of “Sweeney Todd.”
“Now we have this play that’s irreverent; the fourth wall is gone two seconds into the play and it pokes fun at itself as well as the audience,” said Reinhardt. “That’s a pretty brilliant sleight of hand Jason (Loewith, Olney’s artistic director) has pulled off.”
“It’s based on this older play that obviously has all these grooves in the commedia tradition,” Reinhardt added. “Yet the play is very much engaged in the present-day. A lot of those classic things—the slapstick, Harlequin’s patchwork suit—are gone, and they’re replaced with newer contemporary ideas.”
The anachronistic elements add to the levity, moderating the misogyny of Marivaux’s original text and allowing for just the right amount of topical humor. Reinhardt, who imbues his Harlequin with an endearingly boyish physicality, said he was already familiar with the “Arlecchino” tradition—his college, Western Washington University, did a lot of work in Commedia dell’ Arte.
“But I think that early on in the process, Eleanor, our director, wanted to not be stuck in the tropes of old commedia. She wanted to find a way to make it contemporary and give it a new spin, so I play this character in a 2017 sort of way, which I absolutely love.”
All the characters get a twist: from Silvia, the not-so-helpless damsel in distress played with diva-defying fierceness by Kathryn Tkel, to the full-on goofball of a Prince (Christopher Dinolfo) and a pair of palace advisors (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan as Flaminia and Marcus Kyd as Trivelin) who get in on the star-crossed-lovers action and keep the running gags running. Add in Tonya Beckman’s kooky coquette, Lisette, and a scene-stealing Lord played by local legend (and master of all things French) Mark Jaster, and the full-scale onslaught of puns, sight gags and subtle satire is ready to launch, right there in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab.
“They built this gorgeous proscenium that basically takes up half the black box, so it feels like you’re the court in the palace,” said Reinhardt. “When you walk in it’s like, ‘Wow! This is not what I expected!’ But it’s perfect because so much of the play needs the audience’s participation, needs their presence.”
While the audience may function as an eighth actor in “Fickle,” Reinhardt praised the show’s “incredible” ensemble, and said that in the writing-directing team of Miroshnik and Holdridge, “It feels like we’ve won the lottery.”
They return the compliment.
“It’s really exciting to work with Eleanor, the director, and the cast has been wonderful and open,” said Miroshnik, a Minneapolis native who now lives in Los Angeles. When Holdridge and Loewith approached her about the project, she recalled, “They knew that they wanted to do a Marivaux play and they were looking for something that felt fresh and contemporary.”
She has been writing plays since she was a teenager, has a master of fine arts degree from Yale and a tremendous body of work, but Miroshnik, a Core Writer at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, said she had never done this type of adaptation from an already-selected play before.
“They came with the piece,” she recalled, “and it’s a period I’m not super-familiar with, originally written in a language that I don’t speak. There were these additional challenges, and it was different from anything I’d ever done before.”
Miroshnik accepted the commission. “This is definitely a comedy of manners, saying things about hierarchy and class in that period,” she said. “It’s also already a fairytale world—even in the 18th century, it wouldn’t have been ‘realistic’—and I wanted to preserve that quality. The subtitle of it is ‘A Fancy French Farce,’ so there’s a general sense of pedigree, a sense of timing, but it’s lifted into this American idea of what a fancy French farce would be.”
Once she got into it, Miroshnik said, the play’s historical-cultural bubble allowed her to paint in broadly comedic hues. “That setting allowed us to have Kardashian references and jokes about things that happened yesterday,” she said, “while also maintaining this sense of place, this classical commedia, this unified play structure.”
And, perhaps most important of all, she had the resources of Olney Theatre Center behind her. She wrote the play specifically for the already assembled cast, and was amazed at the ability of the designers and technicians to whip her words into an instantly accessible world. “You kind of thoughtlessly mention that there’s a plate of croissants and then the props people create the most beautiful plate of croissants,” she marveled. “It’s so exciting to see your work fully realized in physical time and space.”
That realization—a perfect jewel box of a set, costumes on fleek, and props crafted to order—elevates this show above the buffoonery often associated with the genre known as farce, where improbable situations and preposterous events are mined for easy laughs. As “Fickle” director Holdridge points out, the word “farce” comes from the French word “farcir,” which means “to force.” “It was ‘forcemeat,’” she explained. “It’s what happened in the 15th through 17th century when people took religious plays and stuffed them with jokes, songs, dances and comedy.”
Centuries later, the tables have turned, and the classical farce is being stuffed with jokes about selfies and brand-building, with witty French asides and musical interludes that are easy even for 21st century Americans to understand. “There are a lot of contemporary references, but it’s still a fairytale kingdom with a prince, clever servants and a Harlequin character,” said Holdridge. “We’re still putting a lot of ‘stuff’ in the plot, but the story is character-based and it’s a real ensemble of actors: seven unique individuals.”
Seven onstage—and the audience with whom they interact. Reinhardt knows the cast is ready; he’s hoping the audience will come prepared to loosen up and laugh. “All the actors feel it: a play like this is just such soul food right now,” said Reinhardt. “Get out of the house, sit down and forget everything that’s stressing you out.
“Just laugh at ridiculous things for an hour and a half.”
“Fickle: A Fancy French Farce” runs through March 26 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Performances start at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; and 1:45 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. No matinee on March 15. Tickets start at $45, with discounts available for groups, seniors, military and students. An audio-described show is set for 7:45 p.m. March 15 and a sign-interpreted one at 7:45 p.m. March 23. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.
Fickle: A Fancy French Farce Video