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A Flea in Her Ear

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A Flea in Her Ear is theater of the bourgeois, for the bourgeois, and by the bourgeois. I don't use that word in the Marxist sense but only because it's appropriate and sounds French.

Of the bourgeois: French playwright Georges Feydeau's bedroom farce is the tale of an insurance salesman who, wrongly suspected of sexual infidelity by his wife, becomes entangled in an intrigue of misunderstanding, jealousy, and mistaken identity as ridiculous as it is complicated. Complicated and devilishly intricate, yes, but there's nothing profound about this play. Nothing. French theater historians may argue this point, and they may well be justified, since any nation that reveres Jerry Lewis as a comic genius must know more about farce than I care to imagine. Anyway, the comedy here flows from the embarrassment encountered by some middle-class people when they're drawn by their own insecurities into the sleazy demimonde (slipped another one in there) of a hotel that rents by the hour.

For the bourgeois: Who else would pay 16 to 27 bucks apiece to laugh at themselves? Well, not really at themselves, but rather at people somewhat like themselves who're caught in impossible situations. That is, it's highly unlikely that your average season-ticket holder would wind up in the the Hotel Pussy a Go-Go dodging bullets fired by an estranged husband. It's the improbability of farce, the escape from ennui (stop me before I kill again) that makes it seductive to the bourgeois. No caustic, heavy-handed, hollow laughter here. Don't think of it as dinner theater but dessert theater, theater of hyperglycemia. Giddy comedy. Honey, I'm just going to run out for something sweet and I'll be right back.

By the bourgeois: I can't believe that the Goodman isn't fully aware of how appropriate A Flea in Her Ear is for its subscription market, not to mention the grand opening of the International Theatre Festival. Here's a chance to tap the disposable income of the vast middle class. So maybe they're not wild about theater. Give them something they do like: a dress occasion, lavish sets, outrageous costumes, actors running around like Keystone Kops--anything for a buck. Sure it's fluff, and judging from the program notes the Goodman seems defensive in its role as theatrical huckster--dressing up its rationale with Freudian implications and cultural resonances--yet you shall know them by their cotton candy.

Not that sets and costumes aren't important in the theater, and definitely a major attraction here. In this adaptation (by Frank Galati) the play takes place in Paris in 1965. That year is important, not for any apparent thematic reason, but because the mid-60s were, visually, a farce. John Lee Beatty's sets are fab, mod, super. The Hotel Pussy a Go-Go is a gaudy composition of red and pink, with a sweeping spiral staircase, the banister upholstered in pink angora. The town house is basic Empire, tricked up with op-art checks, a Calder mobile, and a Mondrian with complementary table lamp. Lindsay Davis's costumes echo the motif: there are Mondrian vinyl boots and matching dress for the madam of the house, and the maid wears op-art check panty hose. The visual impact is initially quite awesome, but after five minutes it commands as much interest as a gaudy wall calendar.

But the set is functional. It has lots of entrances and exits, with which director Michael Maggio seems to be obsessed. So, if your idea of farce is actors coming and going a mile a minute, taking pratfalls and slamming doors, you're in for a big treat, especially in the second act. However, if you found the characters and the dramatic situation intrinsically funny in the first act, you're going to lose all that in the hubbub of act two. Then, since either way the show has shot its wad, act three is at a disadvantage in regaining your involvement.

Essentially, A Flea in Her Ear is a silly vehicle that strips its gears cutting doughnuts in the second act. Personally, I enjoyed the character-based comedy far more than the overwhelming emphasis on slapstick. Which brings my attention to two outstanding performances by Frank Galati and Ramiro Carrillo.

Galati plays Victor Deboshe, an insurance salesman who sells a policy to Carlos Homenides de Histangua (played by Carrillo). The first thing that commanded my attention was Galati's voice--a clear, quirky voice, cunningly suited to his character and unstrained by that shouting you so often hear in large auditoriums. Then my eye was drawn to Galati, not through some craft of directorial focus, but by the energy and fluidity of his performance. That's it: fluid, changeable, in the act of becoming, as opposed to the still-life performances given by the majority of the cast. Even during the endless exposition, Galati gathers momentum for the ensuing ruckus.

That ruckus explodes with the entrance of Ramiro Carrillo, who plays Carlos, a hot-blooded Spaniard. Carlos is indignant about the physical exam he had to undergo for his insurance policy. The doctor actually asked him to "uuur-in-ate." And when it's revealed that the policy is actually for his wife, Carlos refuses to tax her with the same indignity, claiming that he has "pithed enough" for the both of them. But this is only the windup; Carlos really loses his mind when he discovers that his wife is fooling around. It's hard for me to even think of Carrillo's performance in terms of his acting technique. I was so blown away by Carlos, the character, that I was amazed that the stage was big enough to contain him.

So that's what I got out of it, two fantastic performances sprinkled over three hours of dramatic pastry. Two supporting actors--Ray Chapman (as Claude, a libertine with a cleft palate) and Laurel Cronin (as Olympia, a sex kitten with fidgeting thighs)--also distinguish themselves among a cast that seems undirected and uninspired. I'd like to say A Flea in Her Ear is worth the money, but that depends on your social class. You know who you are.

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