Over Our Heads

You've got to feel sorry for the poor folks who fork over their hard-earned cash to see Moliere at California Repertory's Studio Theatre and don't bring their encyclopedia of Russian playwrights. It's not that the acting's poor, the production's boring, or the script's terrible. It's just that unless theatergoers' specialty is Soviet-era playwrights, they're going to be left stumbling in a Siberian fog.Without the proper context, there are some big questions the average theatergoer will no doubt be asking, like, “Why was there a handgun fired in a play about a 17th-century French playwright?” And, “Why were some men wearing 20th-century suits in a play about a 17th-century French playwright?” And, “What were those corpulent, KKK-like grand wizards doing in a play about a 17th-century French playwright?”With the proper context, those questions are answers. Namely, playwright Mikhail Bulgakov's 1930 play is as much about his own struggles with censorship and persecution in Stalinist Russia as it is about the playwright Moliere's own censorship struggles in 17th-century Paris.Without the proper context, however, the play seems like an awkwardly confusing construct. Hell, even knowing the play's background isn't always enough to fathom every twist and turn in this very weird piece of theater.Still, there's enough in the script and in director Mark Weil's ambitious staging to intrigue viewers who are willing to do a little research on their own. The lack of explanatory program notes is surely just an oversight on Cal Rep's part; you can't produce a Bulgakov play without realizing the awesome historical weight of the material. Although only one of the countless legions of artists whose lives were cut short by the bloody regime of Josef Stalin, Bulgakov's fate ranks among the most tragic.One of the most creatively gifted modern playwrights, he drew the unfortunate lot of being a free-thinking artist in a totalitarian society-a society in which art was encouraged, but only if it praised the virtue of the state. Bulgakov, who also wrote novels and short stories, was an adept satirist, and his plays were met with great success-for the short period they were actually onstage. He waged a constant battle with Soviet censors the last 15 years of his life-a battle he lost in terms of his life (he died in 1940) and his work (the majority of his estimated 36 plays were either lost or destroyed). His short but distinguished publishing career was effectively ended in 1930, when he was banned from publishing. Shortly after, his request to leave the Soviet Union was denied by Stalin. He created his most enduring works in the last decade of his life, including Moliere. Six years later, it was produced. It lasted only seven nights before it was banned. Moliere does have the famed 17th-century comedic playwright/ director/producer at its heart. But Bulgakov took great liberties with his subject matter, portraying the artist as a man driven to desperation and depression by governmental repression. Moliere (Pete Zapp) begins the play at the top of his creative powers and popular success, adored by the Parisian masses as well as the Sun King, Louis XIV (Patric Taylor). However, Moliere's satire on religious hypocrisy, Tartuffe, runs him afoul of the wicked Marquis de Charron (Davis Mejia) and a few of his cohorts. They persuade King Louis to ban Tartuffe. This, coupled with sordid rumors concerning Moliere's young wife, destroys the playwright. He ultimately dies of a broken heart during a performance of his final play, The Imaginary Invalid.There are enough subplots and characters flitting in and out to do any prime-time soap opera proud. We've got everything from dastardly one-eyed musketeers (Baron Kelly) out to skewer Moliere like a roast pig, to righteous shoemakers (Michael A. Pando), who clamber up and down the Sun King's towering throne while parroting everything anyone else says. Meanwhile, everyone's out to either fuck or fuck over the playwright, and every time we turn around, there is the wicked Marquis and his shadowy cabal of conspirators torturing, interrogating or lurking in the shadows. While the loose ends and diverse personal threads never seem to add up to a conclusive whole, you can't dispute Bulgakov's sweeping vision and passionate need to tell his own story through that of Moliere.Similarly, Weil's production doesn't quite add up to a triumphant experience, but it's rarely dull. He laces the evening with some lavish creative flourishes, helped along by Kanila Korogodsky's impressive set, which is dominated by a giant throne/baby chair in which the Sun King parks his radiant ass. Weil also does a very good job of keeping this play's often chaotic course somewhat manageable, navigating through its glut of characters and extraneous situations. When Bulgakov's play finally decides to become a drama, Weil is right on top of it. The last moments of Moliere are fraught with tension and foreboding.The large cast has several standouts. While Zapp's Moliere starts out with too many giddy pills in his system, by play's end, I had completely bought into his character's struggle. Standing out in smaller roles are the very funny Matt Gourley as Moliere's long-suffering stagehand and Matt Southwell in the play's most complex role-he has to stuff himself into a harpsichord, bone Moliere's wife, get tortured by sadists, and still make us think he's a good guy. April Hall is underutilized: most of her stage time consists of running on and off the stage in skimpy clothes. When she gets a chance to act, she displays a fresh and vibrant personality.All in all, Moliere is an intriguing night of theater-one that ultimately disappoints not because of what's attempted onstage, but because of what's not explained. Moliere at California Repertory's Studio Theatre, Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-7000. Thurs.-Fri., Feb. 26-27, 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m. $12-$15.

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