When you hear the name Moliere, it’s likely that The Bungler, one of the 17th Century playwright’s earliest comedies, will not make the list of titles coming to mind. Still, if A Noise Within’s production of this little-known gem is any indication, The Bungler (aka L’Etourdi) is one of the French master’s funniest confections—or so it would seem as conceived by director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott.anselm

 The setup is fairly simple. Enamored of the lovely Celie (Emily Kosloski), our hero Lelie (Michael A. Newcomer) enlists the help of his crafty valet Mascarille (JD Cullum) to win the fair damsel’s love and free her from the clutches of Trufaldin (William Dennis Hunt), the wealthy old codger in whose care she has been left by a band of gypsies as security for a loan. It’s also Mascarille’s mission to insure that Lelie’s rival Leandre (Kevin Stidham) get a big thumbs down from the beauteous Celie.  In the meantime, Hippolyte (Kate Maher), the previous object of Lelie’s and Leandre’s affections, remains conveniently on hand for whoever comes in second.

All of the abovementioned tasks ought to be child’s play for someone as clever and cunning as Mascarille were it not for a very big fly in the ointment, the titular Bungler, aka Lelie himself. No matter how inventive each and every one of Mascarille’s schemes might be, one thing is certain. Lelie will do something to muck it up.

Since Richard Wilber’s ingenious English translation of Moliere’s original French rhyming couplets is virtually stage direction-free, any mounting of The Bungler becomes by definition a “director’s production,” and nowhere is this more true than at A Noise Within, where this is most definitely Julia Rodriguez-Elliott’s The Bungler.

  The director sets a festive mood from the get-go, when the troupe of strolling players whom we’ve been watching getting costumed and bewigged in the “dressing rooms” that make up the upstage part of John Iacovelli’s set begin an “overture” of converging sounds that climaxes with the arrival of tuba playing masqerader Kabin Thomas, who’ll be sticking around throughout the performance to provide musical punctuation to many of the play’s funniest moments.

A spectacular bevy of Commedia dell’Arte costumes by Angela Balough Calin, along with matching wigs, hair, and makeup by Monica Lisa Sabedra, set the mood as well, from Lelie’s shoulder-length locks and pancaked-and-rouged face to Celie’s Marie Antoinette-high hair to the frills and ruffles and patterned silk and velvet of the 17th Century gentlemen’s ensembles and ladies’ gowns.

Physical comedy at its most brilliantly over-the-top forms a major part of The Bungler’s appeal as imagined by Rodriguez-Elliott, from a hilarious putting-on-the-master’s-coat scene to a foiled pick-pocketing sequence to an invisible pooch (we see only the collar and leash held by Mitchell Edmonds’ Pandolfe) that seems to have a mind of its own, particularly when there’s a handy bush in the vicinity. And though not quite “physical” comedy per se, the bursts of flamenco music and olés that greet every mention of Spain or Madrid are another inspired Rodriguez-Elliott choice.

It’s a real treat to see Newcomer, one of the Southland stage scene’s premier romantic leading men, playing it for laughs as the well-meaning but foolish/foppish Lelie, whose bungling becomes so deliciously predictable that we greet his every entrance with an “Oh, no, not again” groan of a laugh.

Still, it’s Mascarille, the ostensible second banana, who ends up the center-stage star of The Bungler, particularly in the hands of L.A. theater treasure Cullum, Best Lead Actor Scenie winner two years in a row for A Noise Within’s Much Ado About Nothing and the Antaeus Company’s The Malcontent. Hard as it is to play favorites where roles and performances are concerned, Cullum’s Mascarille may be the scene-stealing best of the bunch. Even Cullum’s frustrated eye-rolls score laughs, as did the withering glance he gave the unfortunate lady in the front row whose cell phone went off and wouldn’t stop its obnoxious ring tone as she frantically searched for it in her purse. Priceless!

 There’s not a weak link in the spectacularly talented A Noise Within cast, beginning with exquisitely lovely leading ladies Kosloski and Maher. ANW Resident Artists Hunt, Stephen Rockwell (as Hippolyte’s father Anselme) and Edmonds (as Lelie’s papa Pandolfe) have never been funnier. Stidham, who won a Scenie a few years back for his unforgettable lead performance in Glendale Centre Theatre’s The Hasty Heart, makes for a terrifically suave Leandre. Amin El Gamal and Rafael Goldstein provide their own dazzle as Andres and Ergast, with the cast completed by masquerader Claire Marie Mannle.

With musical director/composer extraordinaire David O on hand, much of The Bungler ends up musically underscored, cast members strumming guitar or mandolin or marking beats or joining voices in song. Iacovelli’s set morphs from scene to scene with the aid of cast members who don masks which transform them from the characters they are playing into elaborately costumed “stage hands.” Ken Booth’s vivid, varied lighting design is one of his best, and even turns a casual “Night falls” from Lelie’s lips into one of the production’s biggest laughs. Kudos go too to costume shop coordinator Kellsy MacKilligan, props master Jenny Smith, technical director Andrew Ellis, and master electricians Patrick Traylor and JaNelle Weatherford, and a round of applause goes out to stage manager Meghan Gray, who has a good deal of stage managing to do in a production as complex as this one.

Following the ambitious Antony And Cleopatra and Corneille’s The Illusion (not reviewed here but an evening of real theatrical magic), The Bungler completes A Noise Within’s Spring Season on a high (and hilariously unbungled) note indeed.

A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd, Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
April 8, 2012
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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