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Plays of the Day

If you go see Arizona Theatre Company's production of Moliere's Scapin, you may leave the theater wishing it were possible to stay and, moviehouse fashion, see the play again. That's mostly because this show is so entertaining, but also because it spins by so fast, you never figured out what...
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If you go see Arizona Theatre Company's production of Moliere's Scapin, you may leave the theater wishing it were possible to stay and, moviehouse fashion, see the play again. That's mostly because this show is so entertaining, but also because it spins by so fast, you never figured out what the hell the story was about.

Scapin isn't about much. Like a lot of 300-year-old comedies, it concerns mistaken identities and makes broad comments about the social mores of the day. In this case, a couple of morons fall in love with damsels their fathers don't approve of, and the boys enlist an oily servant named Scapin to help them keep their inheritances and their girlfriends. There are in this production only tattered scraps of Moliere's original Les Fourberies de Scapin (The Tricks of Scapin), which was first produced in 1671. Most subsequent versions of this frantic farce have been reshaped into showcases for its lead clown: In the '70s, comic Jim Dale had a hit with a version called Scapino, and Broadway jester Bill Irwin and New Yorker cartoonist Mark O'Donnell made it into a box-office hit again a couple of years ago in Chicago.

The ATC version is an adaptation of the Irwin/O'Donnell script, further refined to fit the talents of local comic actor Bob Sorenson, who clowns expertly for two full hours. Scapin is really nothing more than a series of silly setups, a bag of gags that provides a perfect playground for a couple of consummate cutups to strut their stuff.

Director David Ira Goldstein has them in Sorenson and R. Hamilton Wright, who visits ATC as Scapin's smashing sidekick, Sylvestre. The pair lead fellow cast members through slapstick routines that are old as the hills but that look like they were written yesterday. In a hilarious bit tossed in by Goldstein and Sorenson, Act Two opens with a recap of the story thus far, played entirely by kneepad puppets worn by Sorenson.

Not every bit is as funny. A vague joke about a boat goes on far too long, and there are a few too many punch lines that rely on audience participation. But the show's occasional misses are quickly covered by the next stack of slapstick pranks, and the whole thing is played at such a frantic pace that there's barely time to recover from one yuk before the next barrage begins. Some samples: When one character stops to explain his backstory, a giant sign reading "EXPOSITION" falls from the sky. Scapin attempts to dodge his angry boss by dressing as Jackie Kennedy. And in the show's funniest section, Wright impersonates a lunatic legionnaire who mimes scenes from Godzilla films while dismantling parts of the set. When the pair are joined onstage by Andy Paterson as Octave, this French farce becomes an old Ritz Brothers routine, with pratfalls and well-timed raspberries in place of Moliere's gentler jibes.

Sorenson and his cronies may be center stage, but Goldstein is a featured player as well. His frenzied spoof owes more to the Keystone Kops than to the most-performed French playwright in the world. He maneuvers his players as if he were helming a tribute to Tinseltown, with short, cinematic scenes and countless old movie references; in fact, the whole thing plays like a raucous Road movie, with Kristin Ketterer as a delightful Dorothy Lamour. And Drew Boughton's first ATC stage design is straight off a Fox backlot, a brightly colored homage to a traditional commedia dell'arte set that provides its own laughs during the course of the show.

Goldstein, who doubles as ATC's artistic director, knows that audiences are apt to opt out when offered a centuries-old French comedy. His version of Moliere's best burlesque is a spoof of itself, and takes pot shots at the very nature of theater with endless asides at his audience's expense, an irony that Moliere--who choked to death while performing onstage in one of his own plays--might have appreciated.

The last time I attended a performance by The Unlikely Theater Company, I left the playhouse clutching my stomach and vowing I'd never return. But Mission, a new play by Unlikely's founder Michael Fenlason, drew me back to the odorous halls of the Mesa Arts Center, where the troupe performs. I'd enjoyed Fenlason's playwriting in the past, and decided to risk another stinkbomb to see what his newest work was about. I was glad I did, because this play is a tiny masterpiece.

Mission is one of those rare entertainments that are found these days only in small, experimental theaters, the kind of "little" play that Broadway used to produce before it began landing helicopters on its stages and tossing chandeliers at its audiences. Shrewdly written, expertly acted and thoughtfully staged, Mission is an exhilarating, well-paced memory play that asks and answers elemental questions about the nature of spirituality.

The story concerns Dylan Hunter (Tyler Christensen) and Kevin Snowden (Jeff Ferris), a couple of LDS missionaries who have come to a remote African village to build schools, install drainage pumps and enlighten the natives to the joys of Mormonism. In a prophetic early scene, the men are told that one of them--"the one with the least fear"--will die within 40 days. We spend the next month with them in a desolate foreign jungle, where their lives and their faith are constantly endangered.

Fenlason starts from the premise that anyone who devotes himself to religion is either a fool or a martyr, then proceeds to dramatize the point in short, cinematic scenes depicting the rigors of blind faith. Both acts end with a bang: The first builds to a rousing speech which reveals the mysterious source of tension between the two men, and the second with a genuine surprise about the story we think we've been watching.

The leads, Christensen and Ferris, appear throughout in identical garb--the typical white shirt and black tie of young Mormon messengers--but their performances couldn't be more dissimilar. Christensen is dazzling as a neurotic, nerdy wisecracker with a secret, while Ferris provides the perfect contrast as a naive kid whose matinee-idol looks belie a simple-minded innocence. Fenlason proves he's also a facile actor in a small role as a mean-spirited mercenary, and the rest of the supporting cast--particularly Kerry LeGrow as a conniving native woman and Mary Kay Zeeb as the love interest--are outstanding in ensemble scenes.

The production has a polished, well-heeled look. Spare, functional sets and simple but effective costuming (particularly the impressive array of saris and headrags worn by the African natives) help enormously, and director Victoria Safriet's dark, moody tableaux capture the villainous goings-on of a sinister, sweltering village.

Beyond the show's opening and closing speeches, which are spoken directly to the audience and are therefore a little jarring, Mission is a most satisfying play, and a vast improvement over the company's more recent fare.

Arizona Theatre Company's Scapin continues through Sunday, May 24, in Center Stage at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.

The Unlikely Theater Company's Mission continues through Saturday, May 23, at Mesa Arts Center, 155 North Center.

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