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The Newlywed Game

[whitespace] Lisa Anne Porter
Harlot Nights: Suzanne (Lisa Anne Porter) navigates her way through intrigue and deceit in 'The Marriage of Figaro.'

Shakepeare Santa Cruz infuses 'The Marriage of Figaro' with heady doses of humor and sexy intelligence

By Sarah Phelan

FUNNY, SEXY AND SMART. That's how director Michael Butler describes Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro, this year's non-Shakespearean entry in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's festival. And he's right. Butler's fast-paced production of this classy classic is deliciously scandalous, delightfully quick-witted and above all, uniformly hilarious. What's more, thanks to Ranjit Bolt's upbeat and audience-friendly translation, the piece manages to resonate with turn-of-the- millennium audiences--no small feat considering that the piece was first produced in 1784, a mere five years before the blood-soaked French Revolution, and targeted the French aristocracy. It was hardly surprising when Louis XVI initially banned the play because of its criticism of royal privilege, the justice system and a sexual double standard that demanded virginity of women while condoning promiscuity among men. Luckily for us, Beaumarchais' satire has not only outlived its censors, but also bridged the centuries.

The plot is easy enough: A philandering Spanish count becomes infatuated with his wife's chambermaid, Suzanne. She, however, is about to marry his valet, Figaro. Desperate to have her, the Count decides to reinstate the ancient droit du seignior that allows a landowner first crack at a tenant's wife, in this case the luscious Suzanne. What the Count doesn't anticipate is that his much-neglected wife, the Countess, will join forces with Figaro and Suzanne in an effort to thwart his evil plans.

It would be hard not to like Beaumarchais' protagonist, the quick-witted and working-class Figaro, but he's particularly affable as played by Andy Murray. Figaro's fiancée Suzanne (Lisa Anne Porter) is equally likable in her low-cut maid's outfit and high-heeled booties. Though her erotically charged costume reflects her subservient position as a chambermaid in a monsignor's world, Suzanne is nobody's victim. Instead, she takes a strongly proactive role in fighting off the Count's unwanted advances, even if, under this feudal arrangement, the only way to fight back is through the less admirable path of intrigue and extortion, exposé and bribe.

What makes this play particularly relevant to the current Clinton-Lewinsky fiasco is its premise that in the corridors of power no one is truly innocent. Even the play's First Lady, the appropriately stiff Countess (beautifully captured by Michele Farr), reveals a less-than-prim side the minute she's safely behind closed doors. François Giroday is perfect as the Count, the wannabe evil overlord who renders himself ridiculous on account of his vain posturing and clownish antics. Mike Ryan makes a great Cherubin, the over-sexed page who takes comfort in the Countess' arms--as well as just about any woman he can find.

B. Modern's tongue-in-cheek costumes--everything from leopard spot and zebra stripes to formal evening dress and Victoria's Secret lingerie--are an entertaining reminder that director Butler intends the play to be set in a nonspecific time and place. Yael Pardess' inventive four-door set allows for plenty of eavesdropping and farcical door-slamming, whereby the necessary seeds of jealousy and treachery are sown.

Though audiences may be more familiar with Mozart's operatic version of The Marriage of Figaro than Beaumarchais' original play, they'll love Bolt's almost songless, yet musical-sounding translation. MaryBeth Cavanagh's clever, funky choreography together with the inventive use of beds, cakes and chairs keeps the action rolling along at a pleasingly frenetic pace.

Louis XVI may have banned The Marriage of Figaro for political reasons, but 200 years later this play still rocks, set as it is in a wacky, exotic place suffused with desire, the perfect metaphor for every underdog's dreams.


The Marriage of Figaro plays in repertory through Sep. 5 in the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Gen, UC-Santa Cruz. For info, call 459-2159.

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From the August 13-19, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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