A Flea in Her Ear

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      By Georges Feydeau. Translated by John Mortimer. Directed by Dean Paul Gibson. An Arts Club Theatre Company production.

      At the Stanley Theatre until October 24

      I'm sorry. I really am. In a preview article on the fall theatre season I recommended this production of A Flea in Her Ear. That was before I read the script; I knew it only by its reputation, which is excellent--and, as it turns out, inexplicable. I generally admire director Dean Paul Gibson's work, and I'm familiar with the considerable talents of most people in the cast of 13. Unfortunately, as gifted as they are, some of them have little or no idea what to do with the French farce Georges Feydeau wrote at the turn of the last century.

      Farce is all about structure, and Flea's architecture is shaky. In Act 1, Raymonde Chandebise plots with her friend Lucienne Homenides de Histangua to expose Raymonde's husband, whom she suspects of being unfaithful. Lucienne's Spanish spouse misinterprets their scheme and concludes that Lucienne is cheating on him. The frivolity of this setup is witless, and on opening night, most of the actors--including Kerry Davidson (Raymonde) and Dawn Petten (Lucienne)--were wound way too tight to be up to the task of inventing fun. Playing Carlos Homenides de Histangua with macho fury, Martin Sims is a hilarious exception to Act 1's general rule of dullness.

      Things loosen up considerably in the second act, which contains most of the pleasures that this play and production have to offer. Raymonde and Lucienne's plan leads everybody to a sex hotel where chaos reigns. John Murphy embodies the proprietor with the mania of a Gallic Basil Fawlty. Emilia Symington-Fedy endows the chambermaid with an almost demonically changeable nature. And Joel Wirkkunen, who takes the role of a pervy Prussian guest, has several surprises up his pantyhose.

      Disappointingly, Act 3 reverts to boredom largely because Tom Scholte's performance in the crucial dual roles of Raymonde's husband, Victor Emmanuel, and his doppelgíƒ ¤nger, the drunken hotel porter, is so irredeemably flat. Virtually nothing Scholte does in either part is surprising, or idiosyncratic.

      I also take serious issue with one of the script's running gags. Allan Zinyk plays Victor Emmanuel's nephew, Camille. Feydeau's big joke is that Camille has a cleft palate, so it's hard for other people to understand him. I don't think it's overly politically correct to point out the obvious: ridiculing deformity is base, not to mention cruel.

      The argument isn't simple. To give Feydeau his due, the playwright separates Camille's physical affliction from his character: the young man is bright, virile, and generally sympathetic. Zinyk's interpretation of the role is as emotionally honest and comically resourceful as it could possibly be. It's a lovely piece of work. But we're still being invited to laugh at disfigurement. If you don't think that's a problem, try taking a kid with a cleft palate to see this show--even if the child has had surgery--and explaining to her exactly what's so amusing. I'm not saying that there's no place for transgression concerning such matters, but A Flea in Her Ear isn't smart enough to have made it to that level.

      And, despite its fame, the play isn't good enough to justify the money the Arts Club is spending on it. Rebekka Sorensen's '50s haute couture costumes are handsome, and so is Ted Roberts's black-and-white set. I'm happy that 13 players are being employed, but if we're only going to get one decent act out of three, why bother?