Reviving Moliere

 
Jeffrey Binder is the Associate Artistic Director at Gulfshore Playhouse and the adaptor and star of Scapino.

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The cast of Scapino.

Here we are, in the home stretch of a very successful run of my adaptation of Scapino. I couldn’t be more thrilled and humbled at the reception this play has received. I had no idea that when I sat down to update Moliere’s brilliant comedy written in the 1680s that it would find such a warm welcome on our stage.

As most actors will tell you, it’s a much more difficult prospect to perform a comedy than a drama. To perform a comedy requires a physical, vocal, thematic, and rhythmic precision in a way that drama doesn’t demand. If the rhythm is off, the timing is askew, or the actors aren’t on the same page in terms of physicality and style, the comedy dies on the vine. In a drama, we’re typically moved universally by the trials and tribulations of those stories, whether it be a family drama like Arthur Miller’s The Price or even an epic Greek tragedy like Antigone. The universal pain of what it means to be human, even on a grand scale, transcends the boundaries of culture, country, or family.

Not so with comedy. Comedy is a tricky and fickle little monster; it strikes each of us in a profoundly different way and can resonate differently depending on the culture surrounding it. What moves one person to chuckle may scandalize another. We all have a framework of taste and experience informing what we find amusing and what we don’t. I’ve found in live theatre there are few things that make an audience member angrier than sitting through a comedy that they don’t find funny when people around them are laughing. We’ve all been there. Therefore, to write a comedy, particularly one that fully embraces a certain extreme style, like the mob send-up farce that is my adaptation of Scapino, is a tricky and daunting task!

uewb_07_img0492So we take a chance with comedy in a very different way than we do with a drama. Ultimately, I had to embrace my own sense of what makes me smile. I started with the structure of Moliere – probably my favorite playwright in history. Why? Moliere loved the commedia dell arte tradition which featured zaniness, stock characters, and clowning and physical extremes. But Moliere was also a rebel – he was a favorite of the King (for a while), but he was never afraid to poke the eye of the establishment. He shined a light on the hypocrisies of French society and its political and cultural leaders in a hilarious (and to these leaders, absolutely infuriating) way. He was buried in a pauper’s grave and denied a Christian burial (in extremely Catholic 17th Century France) due to the ire he raised with the religious-political establishment of the day. Moliere was a master of blending comedy and commentary. He also knew how to add a new character or plot twist at just the right moment, right when the audience was looking for something new to hit the stage. Scapino is a testament to this.

I wanted to have the audience immediately understand the stakes of the story. In 17th century France, marrying someone your father didn’t approve of (particularly if you were a woman) could be a death sentence. You could be disowned, sent to prison, or worse! How could that resonate with a modern audience? I’m sure you could block the son-in-law you didn’t want on Facebook, but you certainly aren’t going to send them to prison (as much as you may want to). So how could we build those family stakes in a way that a modern audience would understand? Modeling the comedy after a family like you’d find in The Godfather seemed like the perfect way to go. Besides, American culture has a long history of mob comedies, from musicals (Anything Goes, Guys and Dolls) to film (Married to the Mob, Analyze This and Analyze That). It’s the perfect genre for Scapino.

Once I had the framework and the style, over the course of several months I followed the story of these eight characters to its conclusion, trying to find the distinct voice of each of these folks in a way that served the plot as well as kept it fun and energetic. Zeljko, the director, had a brilliant knack for tightening the script, and this amazing cast of actors helped to refine the voices of each of the characters. What we’ve ended up with is something vibrant and unique but which embraces the ideas and framework of Moliere in a modern way. And best of all, it’s been embraced by you, our wonderful audience. I couldn’t be more proud (and relieved) that the play seems to have resonated with our community funny-bone. Thanks for coming in and having a laugh with us this season!

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