Review: "A Flea in Her Ear" at Westport Country Playhouse

 (Carol Rosegg)

(Carol Rosegg)

Tara Kennedy

  • Chief Connecticut Theatre Critic
  • Connecticut Critics Circle
  • ATCA Member

Folks, I do not like farce. While attending Broadway’s The Play That Goes Wrong last December at the recommendation of two of my critic colleagues, I found that I was the only audience member not in fits of laughter… except for my sister (must be hereditary). She and I kept exchanging glances like, “Why does everyone think this is so funny?” Based on this and my other experiences with the genre, I had long concluded that farce and its (over)use of physical humor is the theatrical equivalent of television’s The Three Stooges: it caters to the basest form of funny, requiring its viewers only to watch without thought and volia! Instant amusement.

And then came along Georges Feydeau, who slapped me across the face with one of his dress gloves, crying, “Au contraire!”

A Parisian-born playwright, Feydeau’s works enjoyed popularity in France during La Belle Epoque, the period between the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1871) and the start of World War I (1914), where the fine arts flourished in France; think of the flowing, flowery style of Art Nouveau and the colorful, theatrical posters of Toulouse-Lautrec, and you get the idea. However, this resurgence in pastime delights also resulted in a big gulf between the wealthy and working classes. Feydeau seized this opportunity to shine a lampooning light upon this class gap in his playwrighting; he felt there was no better way to ridicule the bourgeoisie than with farce, and he succeeded in being a popular playwright during this opulent era.

In its second offering this season, Westport Country Playhouse has teamed up with the Resident Ensemble Players at the University of Delaware to bring us a new translation of Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear, considered by many to be his exemplar work. Directed by Mark Lamos and translated by David Ives, this production is no cheap, floozy farce, but high-brow satire complete with the familiar hallmarks of the theatrical style, (refined): multiple doors, (clever) physical comedy, confusion, misunderstandings, and (smart) bawdy humor.  I like my jokes served with a sharp wit rather than a lazy tongue, and A Flea in Her Ear delivers.

Raymonde Chandebise (Elizabeth Heflin) has asked her friend, Lucienne Homenides de Histangua  (Antoinette Robinson) to help her with a problem. She is convinced that her husband, Victor (Lee E. Ernst), is cheating on her since he has been less than amorous with her as of late, not to mention a pair of his suspenders that had been returned to the house from the notorious Frisky Puss Hotel. They concoct a love letter to Victor from a fictitious lover, who requests that they meet at the Frisky Puss that evening where Raymonde will lie in wait for him. Victor, after meeting with Dr. Finache (Hassan El-Amin) about his marital issues (this is way before Viagra, folks), receives the letter and is perplexed yet overjoyed to have a secret admirer. However, he is certain that the woman has confused him with his best friend, Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), and tells him that he should accept the invitation on Victor’s behalf. Throw in Victor’s nephew, Camille Chandebise (Mic Matarrese), who has an unusual speech impediment; Lucille’s hot-tempered Spanish husband, Don Carlos de Histangua (Michael Gotch); a philandering maid (Carine Montbertrand) and her cuckold husband/ butler, Etienne (David Beach); and the (ahem) fine proprietors of the Frisky Puss, Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse) and his wife, Olympia (Deena Burke), and you’ve got the recipe for a riotous good time.         

This is a marvelous ensemble of fine performers who all excel at keeping this show at a lightning pace – a must for farce to work. Mr. Lamos’ staging of this production makes the chaos look effortless. The action cascades across the stage all as if a dance.  

Mr. Ernst and Ms. Heflin are exceptional as the couple Chandebise: Mr. Ernst has two roles to play – one high-brow and one low-brow – and makes those brisk flips between the two characters look easy. Ms. Heflin is brilliant as the deceitful, fiery Raymonde Chandebise. Mr. Matarrese’s ability to speak without consonants for 90% of the play is both mesmerizing and entertaining; it’s like speaking a foreign language, and Mr. Matarrese masters it. Mr. Gotch’s wild, combustible Don Carlos was hysterical; his commanding presence and outrageous broken accent garnered applause from the audience after his first scene with good reason. Tying it all together is the clean and colorful scenic design by Kristen Robinson and the sumptuous costume design by Sara Jean Tosetti.

So, it appears that Westport Country Playhouse’s production has won me over: I may have fallen for farce! Please don’t tell my sister.