After a week-long series of power outages and besieged by an unerring sense of performance anxiety, the curtain went up at the Clark Street Playhouse, leaving an unmistakable trace of trepidation. “Who knows what to expect?” was the question du jour. Well, heave a sigh of relief and break out the Perrier-Jouet and brie – the most important home-grown play of the season is also the most exhilarating.
“Scaramouche” opens with the company reciting variegated accounts of the French Revolution from the writings of Voltaire, Vladimir Lenin, Victor Hugo and Thomas Jefferson, offering a bouquet of ruminations on the subject. The wistful, profound prologue begins rather audaciously with – of all proclamations – “I had a dream,” the reflective vision of optimism that was first tattooed into the histrionic idiom by Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy, and historically augmented by Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous address. It’s an unqualified gamble that, surprisingly, pays off tenfold in the play.
Playwright Barbara Field has forgone the wonderful original introduction in Rafael Sabatini’s novel, “Scaramouche,” which declares, “He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad.” Instead, this phrase is thrice repeated at key moments, operating as the production’s passionate and whimsical Rosetta Stone.
To call “Scaramouche” a pleasant surprise doesn’t do it justice, considering that even the most well-funded productions have failed miserably with similar material. Witness last season’s stiflingly over-scaled revival of “Man of La Mancha” at the Warner Theatre, which nearly collapsed under its own freight.
Field has condensed Sabatini’s prose into urgent, juicy theater that carefully truncates its source material so as not to compromise the quintessence of its themes.
Andre-Louis Moreau, or Scaramouche, as he later becomes known, is one of literature’s most complex protagonists. Courageous, intelligent, quick-witted and intensely moral, Scaramouche is a character whose personal quest for revenge against the villainous Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr is an intricately woven story of swashbuckling action, romance and social conflict during the turbulent years of the revolution.
After running afoul of the oppressive political regime (his best friend is slain), Moreau joins a group of gypsies and actors who travel throughout France, collecting money for their efforts and pursuing their own brand of rebellion via performance art. The wandering troupe of thespians put on their evolving production of “Scaramouche” amidst – well, in spite of – the increasing tumult affecting France. They represent the artistic revolutionaries, rioting in the only way they can – with dramatic evocation. Their underlying message – that it’s imperative to appreciate a company of hardworking performers because they are symbolic conduits of humanitarian, political messages – proves poignant for any suggested cultural epoch.
In the title role, Hugh T. Owen exhibits a tortured urbanity with the ease (and the dulcet tones) of a weary, wary Jude Law. Pitiable one moment, gallant the next, Scaramouche has been given a contemporary voice, but the character still maintains his classical knight-errant tone in the same
vein as Miguel de Cervantes’s
own quixotic hero.
The ensemble players roundly support the lead. Most notable are Jenifer Deal as the balladeer and Scott Kerns in the most thankless roles – he’s killed twice, first by impaling and then by being shot down from a tower in a five-minute span.
Still, the show is intercepted by the cyclonic Grady Weatherford, playing a handful of characters, not the least of which is the ringleader of the performing harlequins. Weatherford recalls Jack Black as channeled by Dwight Yoakam and manages to be both balletic and unwieldy at the same time. It should come as no surprise that he also serves as the production’s commedia dell’ arte choreographer.
As equally thrilling as the acting is the show’s elegantly fervent pulse, which races the plot toward its heart-stopping finale. Special notice should be reserved for Lynn Joslin’s mood lighting, which bathes the production in crimson during the riot scenes, casts a blue pall over the pillaged French manses and cuts through the impenetrable blackness to form illuminated rooms and vistas. Director Gregg Henry has streamlined his production to a fluid current, with actors tightly following each other’s coattails, giving “Scaramouche” almost cinematic fleetness.
Somewhere between amateur theatrics and prodigious professionalism, the Washington Shakespeare Company has come up with lightning in a bottle, a kinetically charged event contained in an otherwise unassuming environ. “Scaramouche” is both a tribute to and an incarnation of the same notion – that art has the power to promote change and shape the next frontier.
Scaramouche is currently playing through October 25th at the Washington Shakespeare Company’s Clark Street Playhouse, at 601 S. Clark St., Arlington, VA 22202 (Crystal City Metro stop). Showtimes are Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $22 – $30 except Saturday matinees, which are Pay-What-You-Can, no reservations.