Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Moliere At His Best: A Noise Within charms with “The Bungler”
Few men have had their finger on the pulse of their own time period like Moliere. He made social comedy into an art form, managing to touch on class issues of his own day while creating characters whose foibles prove so human they are still very accessible today. Still, some of Moliere’s comedies are produced more often than others. There is a particular excitement for those who, like me, have experienced multiple productions of “Tartuffe,” “The Imaginary Invalid,” or “The Misanthrope” to discover there may still be a surprise – an unknown treasure to be unearthed on occasion.
Indeed, I have just found one. After seeing “The Bungler” at A Noise Within, I cannot help wonder why it is not one of the more commonly done of Moliere’s work. Graced with comic plot worthy of Abbott and Costello, the silly elegance of an overdressed era, and that universal sympathy for a cheerful scoundrel, it charms from beginning to end, with more than a few genuine belly laughs along the way.
Much of this is due, of course, to the stellar performances of two individuals. JD Cullum engages at every level as the frustrated valet Mascarille. Wily and devious, Mascarille has been pushed by his master, Lelie, to maneuver the beautiful gypsy woman held in bondage by a neighbor into Lelie’s arms. It would seem a rather standard sort of “cunning servant” play. The difference here is Lelie, played as unflappably vapid by Michael A. Newcomer. Trying to be helpful, Lelie manages to thwart his own interests over and over again, pushing Mascarille into ever more outlandish attempts to achieve his goal.
Both Cullum and Newcomer are brilliant – the one radiating energetic intelligence balanced beautifully the other’s blank-but-earnest placidity. Supporting them is an equally impressive cast.
William Dennis Hunt grounds the story as the penurious owner of Lelie’s obsession. As the obsession, Emily Kosloski provides the kind of porcelain beauty one usually finds on Dresden shepherdesses, and most of what she gets to do is be beautiful. Kate Maher, as the woman Lelie is supposed to marry, settles into an interesting air increasing practicality as the insanity around her becomes more and more transparent, rather than just playing a pawn. Stephen Rockwell makes somewhat bemused work of her father.
Mitchell Edmonds operates with a pleasant cluelessness as Lelie’s somewhat impoverished, but cheerful father. Kevin Stidham’s standard young man makes an attractive alternative for Lelie’s fiance. Rafael Goldstein proves earnestly confidential as Mascarille’s informative friend, and Amin El Gamal radiates a kind of creepy warmth as the mysterious Andres. Kabin Thomas and Claire Marie Mannle round out the cast.
Director, and ANW Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliot has chosen to weave this baroque comedy with aspects of commedia dell’arte, utilizing the masks, music and dance as segues for and punctuation to the production. This general concept of a play within a play makes the thing flow with a lighthearted ease, with just a little aura of the sinister. It all works.
“The Bungler,” in the end, is far from a bungle. It is laugh-out-loud funny, as much due to direction and quality of acting as to Moliere. To be surprised by something around since the time of Louis XIV has its own enjoyment, and is in its way the best proof of the essential artistry of theater, even comic theater, to speak to the human condition. Go if you can. You’ll be glad you did.
What: “The Bungler” When: Through May 27 in repertory with two other plays, 8 p.m. selected Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. selected Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $42 – $46 Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org