Friday, July 31, 2009



Reviewed by James Karas

France produced at least two comic geniuses in the 19th century and each of them perfected his genre to a degree that it has become synonymous with his name. I speak of Jacques Offenbach whose name is synonymous with operetta and Georges Feydeau who perfected the French farce. Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) is one of the offerings of the Aix-en-Provence Festival and Feydeau’s farce La Dame de chez Maxim (The Lady from Maxim’s) can be seen at the Odeon Theatre in Paris.

Orpheus and Eurydice have inspired over one hundred operas in the last four centuries and some of them are still in the repertoire. What was missing in the long lineup of serious treatments of the subject from Monteverdi to Gluck was an unholy burlesque of the whole pack of them and Offenbach was just the man to do it.

What about the passionate but tragic love of Orpheus for his Eurydice? Nonsense, says Offenbach. She is having an affair with a neighbour called Aristee (Pluto in disguise) and can’t stand her husband or his music. He is a violin teacher and is having it off with one of his students. When she dies, he is elated. Unfortunately, Public Opinion, the keeper of moral standards on earth and on Mount Olympus, intervenes and forces the very reluctant Orpheus to go looking for his wife.

He goes to Mount Olympus where things are even worse than on earth. The gods are as immoral as people and Jupiter, their chief, is the worst offender. But the gods are bored (ambrosia and nectar are not doing it for them) and they rebel. They all go to the Underworld to see how Pluto is living and for Jupiter to see that delectable piece called Eurydice that he heard about.

You get the idea. There is broad humour, the best being provided by Jérôme Billy as John Styx, the drunken former King of Boeotia. Pauline Courtin is a bundle of energy as Eurydice and Julien Behr is the unhappy Orpheus. Francis Bouyer is the horny Jupiter and Emmanuelle de Negri is the wiry Cupid.

It’s all rollicking fun with some sexual stuff thrown in but not overdone. The sex in the Fly Duet is not as raunchy as it can be. Eurydice is chased by Jupiter and when he catches her she places a towel between herself and the audience as he gets down to work. She hits a high note at the climactic point of the duet.

La Dame de chez Maxim is a classic farce. The straight-laced Dr. Lucien Petypon (Nicolas Bouchaud) wakes up under the couch. A strange woman is in his bed and he has no idea how she got there. He recalls going to Maxim’s for a wedding party the night before but ending up with a voluptuous woman in your bed?

His wife (Gabrielle Vonderheyden) walks in and she mistakes la Môme (Norah Krief), the lady from Maxim’s that is, for an angel. The “angel” tells her that if she walks around the Obelisk in the Place de la Concorde she will give birth to a child who will save France. Madame Petypon goes out to do just that.

A farce moves from one crisis to the next with frenetic speed and La Dame is no exception. Petypon’s uncle, General Petypon (Gilles Privat) arrives in from Africa and he mistakes la Môme for Madame Petypon and invites her to the wedding of his adopted daughter at his chateau. La Môme, a rather loose girl of course, knows the prospective groom. Madame Petypon returns from her walk and confusion is piled upon confusion.

The setting is supposed to be a beautiful apartment in Paris and a chateau in the country but director Jean-Francois Sivadier and his designers prefer a largely empty stage with a few props. There are ropes hanging prominently from the ceiling. There is a couch and a bed and a few chairs but not much else. There are no fixed doors but a door is raised and lowered by the ropes now and then. A farce without doors is like a sundae without ice cream.

Sivadier has some difficulty in getting his actors to move around. On several occasions he lines them up in front of the audience and has them deliver their lines directly to us. This is farce and not Brecht for God’s sake.

Overacting is de rigueur in farce; you expect the double-takes, exaggerated facial expressions and the whole frantic running about. When they are not standing facing the audience Sivadier does get them to move but he does not quite know that there can be such a thing as overdoing the overdone.

Farce should involve the audience to such an extent that they scream with laughter at some of the more outrageous scenes. The production did evoke laughter but not the raucous belly laughs that I would have expected from the French at their own game, so to speak.

(Photo: scene from Orphee aux enfers)

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