It is said that Pierre Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro foreshadowed the French Revolution—though Figaro (Sean McNall) is based on Brighella, a stock Commedia character, a servant who often outwits his master, Beaumarchais’ text is far more political and is packed with polemical monologues against social inequity. “How came you to be rich and mighty, Count Almaviva?” asks Figaro, “Why truly, you gave yourself the trouble to be born!” The count in question, though ostensibly a friend of our hero, suffers no guilt over his consistent attempts to seduce his fiancée, Suzanne (Jolly Abraham). For Beaumarchais, money trumps morality. Or as Figaro says later, “The richest voice would always be the loudest.”
So it is appropriate that the new translation of Figaro currently being produced by the Pearl Theatre Company, one that is “freely adapted” by Charles Morey, has seized on the current political environment to demonstrate Beaumarchais’ relevance. “The rich don’t uphold the law; it’s the law that upholds the rich!” moans Figaro in one scene. Outraged, the judge Bridoison (Brad Heberlee) replies, “The law is infallible, Monsieur! It keeps you in your place and stops the rich from stealing more than is fashionable!” Surely there are a few activists in Union Square who would agree.
Like most farces, an attempt at reconstructing the plot of Figaro would be exhausting and utterly beside the point. In the middle of enacting one of his own schemes, Figaro confesses, “For what it’s worth, I don’t understand a word anyone is saying.” Doors open and shut with appropriate rapidity, men hide under couches and behind bushes, women disguise themselves as other women, and at least one boy wears a dress for a little longer than the plot makes necessary. Need you know more?
The Pearl is just about the best revival company in New York and their inaugural production of the season does not disappoint. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard and so consistently at a play. Rarely has a playwright thrown everything at the wall to see what sticks, only to find that almost all of it, in fact, sticks. Mr. McNall, who (along with Andy Grotelueschen) is our greatest interpreter of classic texts, adopts the role of the impish puppet master with infectious glee. Granted, the text has a few groaners—recalling the events of The Barber of Seville, Figaro says, “It would take an Italian opera to describe it”—but he delivers these lines in stride, shrugging at the audience and shaking his head as if to say, “Yeah, yeah, I know.” Suzanne is described in the notes as “every bit the match for her fiancé,” and the same could be said for Mr. McNall’s co-star, Ms. Abraham—like Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, she lets her husband take credit for far more than he should, sharing knowing glances with us whenever he boasts about his “Figaroian” schemes. And Chris Mixon, who plays Count Almaviva, prances around the stage, the trail of pomposity almost visible behind him—he likes to announce at the most unconvincing moments, “Not much gets past me!” a line that Mr. Mixon delivers with relish. It is with regret, however, that I do not have the space to name each and every actor in this production—they are all of them wonderful.
Early in the play, as one of his schemes begins to click together in his mind, Figaro tells us, “This could be fun!” In a play that is defined by hyperbole and excessiveness, this is probably the only understatement.