All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The last half hour of Stephen Wadsworth’s production of “The Marriage of Figaro” at McCarter Theatre is among the most exciting, moving, and galvanizing sequences of theater I’ve ever seen. And all is accomplished with well-acted words.
Adam Green, whose adorable freshness and boyish impishness has delighted audiences throughout “Figaro” and its companion piece at McCarter, “The Barber of Seville,” both plays adapted by Wadsworth from Pierre Beaumarchais’s comedy, delivers a tour de force climax to Wadsworth’s production with a speech in which Figaro declaims about the hardness of life and how much more difficult it is if you have to go through it without a title or the wealth and privilege that come with it.
Green’s Figaro is not some doctrinaire egalitarian or social revolutionary. He is a regular guy who has survived on his cunning, sometimes aiding the nobles he excoriates, sometimes staying one inch away from the law’s reach, but mostly by becoming the useful master of all trades that Beaumarchais says he is and that Rossini (or more to the point Cesare Sterbini, Rossini’s librettist) gives him a chance to sing about in the punishing largo in the opera version of “The Barber of Seville.”
By the end of “The Marriage of Figaro,” Figaro is fed up. His wits have seen him through so much, but he has neither the power nor the wherewithal to keep from being thwarted by politicians and roving-eyed gentry, and he is tired of how much work he has to do to have the little he can claim in the world. Mostly, he wants to marry his beloved Suzanne, and unlike the nobles he serves, be totally faithful to her, as he expects her to be to him.
Figaro wants fairness. He wants to be left alone to enjoy his life without official or other interference. He is willing to work. He knows he and Suzanne have to earn livings, but he doesn’t want to be tricked or be among the tricksters any more. Life has not worn him down as much as it disappointed and disillusioned him. Scheming was fun when he was young and had nothing personal at stake. But Suzanne is his treasure, and he doesn’t want her compromised. He doesn’t want anything compromised.
Because Green has played the clown so gladly and effectively in “Barber” and “Marriage,” it is especially affecting to see his Figaro pouring out words that are the equivalent of tears. Figaro is having a “Pagliacci” moment. It is one of Wadsworth’s traits to follow a scene of pure commedia with a quiet, touching moment that emphasizes the toll one person’s joke plays on another, but Green’s recitation of Figaro’s speech goes beyond that. It expresses so much that people who make sincere attempts to better themselves feel when government or other authorities decide to be their partner.
Figaro speaks of being born with nothing and having no one and no place to claim for solace or shelter or even to show him the ways of the world. He learns all of this on his own. He becomes a master instead of a jack of all trades because he’s smart and catches on quickly. Figaro doesn’t need to know the philosophy behind how something is done or how to complete a task in a conventional way. He is like my Aunt Ruthie, who made her own shoes and did other things people marveled (and sniggered) at her undertaking on her own. When I was seven, she told me, “If anybody on Earth can do something, you can do it too. You just have to learn how. And think about whether it’s worth doing.”
Aunt Ruthie is a disciple of Figaro. She absorbed everything anyone taught her. Figaro is also a sponge of a student. When we meet him in “Barber,” he is heading to cut someone’s hair after pulling someone else’s tooth and setting yet another person’s wound. Figaro acts as barber, dentist, and doctor. He can fix things. And he is genius at arranging things, including mayhem.
He profits from his cleverness, but when he wants something real, something pure, the dishonesty and disrespect rampant in the world get in his way. So, he has his outburst that talks about how wonderful life might be if governments weren’t always in your pocket, if officials knew their place was to serve and not to rule, if grown people would honor the wishes of others and stay true to those they call their friends and take as their spouses. Figaro, who has lived by chicanery, wants to have some probity in the world. He wants something as simple as happiness, different from the happy-go-lucky joy he is accustomed to having, and finds no one leaves him alone to enjoy or bask in the pleasures he acquires.
Beaumarchais’s speech is brilliant, a true classic, and an accurate expression of the way many feel when they just want to lead their lives undisturbed and find themselves bogged with what some morons have legislated or dilemmas that are caused by other people instead of the vicissitudes of life that will bring enough upheavals of their own.
In the theater, Beaumarchais’s lines are only as good as the actor who delivers them, and the spirit of Beaumarchais should give a warm embrace to Adam Green.
Green gives Beaumarchais’s speech with open sincerity. Figaro’s heart, broken by the blithe amorality of people he regarded as friends, informs every word Figaro says, and Green expresses that heartbreak in riveting fashion. You want to hear his every word. Figaro has not only mastered a number of tasks. He has seen the truth of life, and it has sickened him to the point he wants to do better.
Before I take a half-hour explaining why one speech was so moving and meant so much to me, I should say the dozen or so scenes that come before Green’s bravura performance are also of top caliber. Wadsworth’s overall production is superb. It is genuinely funny while remaining human and gives several of Green’s castmates the chance to shine as comics and tragedians, sometimes within moments.
Green is not the only one whose character has a major declaration to make towards the end of “The Marriage of Figaro.” Jeanne Paulsen, who made an impression as Marceline, a doyenne of sorts in the home of Dr. Bartolo, delivers a plaintive and telling speech about what women endure in the 18th century, a speech that, like Figaro’s, resonates today. Paulsen is a wonderful actress. Her Marceline is stolid while also being droll. She quietly watches the human comedy around her without reacting to it much. When given cause to act, Marceline can be determined. As played by Paulsen, she can also wittily show that through she is now older, she has not forgotten the wiles of her youth. The actress creates a stately woman who can break her mask when it suits her. Her speech about women is triggered by all that gender has to endure as men philander and fail to commit while they expect women to be waiting forgivingly when they are through with their folly.
I don’t want to give the impression you have to wait for special scenes or late-inning speeches to revel in Wadsworth’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” The brilliance begins when the show’s curtain goes up and is only enhanced or pointed by the extraordinary sequences.
“The Marriage of Figaro” is a sequel to “The Barber of Seville” and is one of three plays Beaumarchais wrote that center on the character of Figaro. It begins in the home of Count Almaviva and Rosine, now married but not as happily as one might have hoped they’d be at the end of “Barber.”
Almaviva has gotten the seven-year itch after three years. Marriage and its responsibility bore him, and he looks for diversion in other women. Rosine is aware of her husband’s infidelity and further desire for it, but she remains devoted to her marriage if disdainful of her husband.
The Almaviva household is complex. A houseboy, Chérubin, a Figaro-wannabe but without the brains or the discipline, is a typical 18-year-old male who wants to ravage every woman in the house, especially his mistress, Rosine, and Figaro’s intended, Rosine’s personal maid, Suzanne. Almaviva also has a eye for Suzanne, and though he has waived an odious old tradition that gives the master of a house the privilege of sleeping with a servant’s bride on the wedding night, the count cannot get Suzanne or the thought of making love to her off of his mind.
Complexity is joined with complication when Dr. Bartolo, thwarted by Figaro and Almaviva in his quest to marry Rosine, falls in league with Marceline to invoke a clause in a loan agreement that says if Figaro does not repay the sum he borrowed from Marceline, she can claim him as her husband. Between being his own collateral, trying to keep his employer from romancing his fiancée, giving a friend’s solace to Rosine, and preparing for a trial to determine if Marceline’s contract impels him to marry her, Figaro is beset with worries.
Meanwhile, plans for his wedding with Suzanne continue.
You see how Beaumarchais whips up a meringue of mayhem. Sources for comedy abound, and Wadsworth’s adaptation of Beaumarchais’s script is constantly funny, in word and in visual humor.
Wadsworth’s greater achievement is establishing the impression that the world in which Figaro and Almavivas live is real and inhabited by such people. He creates this reality while stylizing performances. No one, not even Chérubin, is totally a clown or buffoon. People are comic because of what they say and do, and the earnestness or cheek with which they do it. These are people who have witty responses to situations, not people who make jokes for their own sake. They are also people who, like Figaro, put their heart in what they do and can be hurt. As mentioned earlier, Wadsworth is a master of the bathetic. He can take a rollicking scene and a split second later, train a spotlight on someone who is sad or disappointed at being the victim of other’s humor.
Wadsworth presents a madcap world but one that includes consequences and genuine emotion. He uses his imagination and takes great pains to set a sequence or a pose just so. Characters speak directly to the house more often than they face each other. Yet Wadsworth succeeds over and over again — McCarter has thankfully treated us to his genius so often. –in plying his theatricality in a way that makes characters seem natural. Adam Green, for instance, is a whirlwind as Figaro, but you believe Figaro exists as you see him and has a life beyond the scenes in which Beaumarchais has him appear.
“The Marriage of Figaro” is a delight and eclipses even “The Barber of Seville” for being more poignant and more focused. I am tempted to return to McCarter before “Barber” and “Marriage” close on May 4, to see a double header and enjoy both productions again. After all, with the fleeting nature of theater, and dumb union rules that prevent shows from being taped and preserved — See Figaro, you’re not the only one who can rail at the stupidity and ridiculousness of blind authority! — I want to repeat the pleasure I had in seeing these show before they disappear forever.
Adam Green is a wonder and a delight throughout McCarter’s “Figaro” plays. “The Marriage of Figaro” gives him the chance to show more depth and to see the maturity and seriousness Figaro has acquired since “The Barber of Seville.”
Green endows Figaro with the easy manner and nimble intelligence of a man who knows the world but luckily can sit back and crack a beer once in a while instead of having to be pretentious or maintain a position. Green also conveys that Figaro is someone who can be trusted on all occasions. As I said while composing my rambling master’s thesis on his final speech, Green’s triumph is being such a carefree and competent Figaro while harboring deep thoughts and emotions he pours out in one articulate wail that covers the plight of humankind throughout eternity.
Neal Bledsoe gives a nice ironic tone to his Almaviva, a man who has no qualms acknowledging that life goes on and tastes and preferences are serial. As played by Bledsoe, “Marriage’s” Almaviva rather enjoys his amorality and the noble position and allow him time and occasion for such playfulness.
Though Rosine’s part is not as crucial to “Marriage” as it was to “Barber,” Naomi O’Connell is just as solid and affecting in her role, this time as the wronged wife to has to endure Chérubin’s overt flirtations as well as her husband’s unabashed and unhidden treachery.
O’Connell is a marvelous line reader and gets the most of out of every word Rosine says or attitude she expresses.
Watching Jeanne Paulsen’s tower of strength dissolve as her Marceline too is disappointed and subject to hurt is to watch a versatile actress show how a character’s outward appearance and inner emotion may not match. In both “Figaro Plays,” she does lovely, commendable, memorable work.
Derek Smith doesn’t have the opportunity to score as Dr. Bartolo the way he did in “The Barber of Seville,” but he is quite the skilled actor, and I think, the ultimate exponent of Wadsworth’s individual style. In his few scenes, Smith displayed wit and the combination of shrewdness, common sense, and coping with calamity with which he dominated “Barber.”
Maggie Lacey’s Suzanne grows stronger and “Marriage” becomes more complex. At first her reading did not seem as pointed as O’Connell’s or Smith’s. Lacey quickly made up for that with the wit with which she endowed Suzanne. Looking at the world with a sly eye and a well-honed sense of irony, Lacey’s Suzanne proves to be the perfect match for Figaro. Once the actress has more intricate scenes than folding linen or shooing off Chérubin, Lacey shows you Suzanne is another who survived by being smarter than the nobles who look down on her because she’s of a lower class. As with Figaro, you would want this Suzanne on your side in a pinch. By the time Lacey is plotting with O’Connell’s Rosine to thwart Almaviva’s amours, she has made you fall in love with her character and root for circumstances to be right for Suzanne and Figaro to wed.
Cameron Folmar is once again droll in his approach to the obsequious music teacher, Bazile. Magan Wiles is a pesky and acrobatic Chérubin. She is especially good in Wadsworth’s masterfully structured sequences that involves rolling under sofas, jumping out of windows, diving behind divans, burrowing under pillows, and other slapstick moves that show the quality of his way of directing comedy.
One of the most enjoyable performances was given by Frank Corrado as a jurist who understands very little and comprehends ever less. Corrado’s timing, already known from his less showy role in “Barber” is meticulous and lightens “Marriage’s” trial scene immeasurably.
Camille Assaf’s costumes continue to impress, especially her red dress for Rosine and her bridal dress for Suzanne. Charles Corcoran’s set so fits the production, you almost don’t notice how precise it is. Joan Arhelger’s lighting is critical in given scenes and always enhances what Wadsworth intends. As in “Barber,” music director Gerald Steichen did a marvelous job underscoring. Daniel Pelzig’s dances, particularly the number at the end of “Marriage” were lively and made this production more celebratory.
“The Marriage of Figaro” runs through Saturday, May 3, at McCarter Theatre, University Place and College Avenue, in Princeton, N.J. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. April 17 and 24, 8 p.m. Friday, April 18 and May 2, 7 p.m. Saturday, April 26 and May 3, and 2 p.m. Saturday, April 19 and Sunday, April 27. Tickets range from $89.50 to $57 and can be ordered by calling 609-258-2787 or going online to www.mccarter.org.