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Rhyme and reason in a French farce

Even if Lovers and Executioners were a huge flop, you'd have to give the Gulfport Community Players a lot of credit for having the nerve to stage it.

Here's an adaptation of an obscure 17th century French farce, written from start to finish in couplets. Not an easy play for actors to pull off, and not the kind of show that's guaranteed to draw big audiences. A lot of professional companies might shy away, and no doubt most community theaters would.

So you'd forgive a failure, which makes it all the more heartening that this production is both an audience-pleaser and an artistic success.

American playwright John Strand used a Montfleury play called La Femme, Juge et Partie (usually translated as The Wife, Judge and Accuser) as his source. It's considered Montfleury's masterpiece, but it's not well known in America. Strand freely added and edited, injected some elements of ambiguity and generally tweaked the play to make it more palatable for modern audiences.

The plot is undeniably Shakespearean. A woman, left for dead by her husband, returns to Paris disguised as a man to exact revenge. She successfully courts his betrothed and eventually becomes a judge and tries him for murder.

The bawdy and often delightfully low-brow dialogue is more reminiscent of Moliere, Montfleury's personal and professional rival.

The seven-person cast handles the rigorous dialogue beautifully. Sometimes, inevitably, the rhymes and rhythms degenerate into a kind of Dr. Seuss patois, but just as often the actors find an element of naturalism that makes the rhyming unobtrusive.

That's especially true in the first scene of the second act, in which the wife (Colleen Coughenour), still in disguise, confronts her husband (Rob Glidden) about his crime. Even though this play is essentially a raucous comedy, that scene has immense drama, thanks in large part to the two actors.

Besides those of Coughenour and Glidden, one of the best performances comes from Rand Smith, who has just the right blend of bravado and buffoonery as a self-styled conquistador. But the whole cast, which also includes Dean Dobbs, Susan Dembeck, Chris Pardal and Mary Lee Ross, does good work with difficult material.

Whether realism was the right design choice is debatable. But the costume designers (Ross, Helen Parramore and Shirley Machida) have created some luscious pieces. And although the set (by Parramore and Ron Zietz, who also directed) has some fairly obvious flaws, it's impressive given the budgetary constraints of community theater.

The only significant problem might be the play's length. Someone should have realized that 2{ hours of couplets is a bit much. A couple of scenes could have been eliminated.

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