Chicago Theatre Review
Fake News and the Truth
LePuff: Believe It or Not – Remy Bummpo
Obscure French playwright, librettist and novelist Eugene Scribe is remembered today only as the father of “the well-made play.” At the height of the Industrial Revolution, Scribe observed how average citizens were replacing the aristocracy as the primary audience for French theatre. He thus advocated the writing of more tightly-constructed plays that would get to the point and be of more interest to the common theatergoer. By his death in 1861, the prolific Eugene Scribe had been attributed to more than 400 works and was acknowledged as the greatest French playwright since Moliere. Today, however, his writing is virtually unknown to modern audiences.
This newly translated world premiere by Ranjit Bolt is the first time Scribe’s comedy “Le Puff” has ever been produced in Chicago. Surprisingly, the play is more relevant today than one would ever expect. Since the 2016 election, in this era of fake news and alternative facts, twisted and used to blatantly advance the careers of certain questionable individuals, we’re seeing the same kind of exaggeration Scribe was observing in 1848 Paris. The playwright saw the constant fakery and downright lying becoming the standard; truth was a dying entity. “Puff” was the polite euphemism individuals used to describe or excuse “lying to the level of speculation.” The bolder the lie, the more the populace seemed to believe it. In this play, one character admits, “Puff is king, my boy. Puff and publicity.” This sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it?
The play revolves around Albert d’Angremont, a handsome and honorable young cavalry officer, who has returned to Paris following several years in the Algerian desert. After coming to the assistance of Cesar Desgaudets, he learns from the gentleman, and everyone else around him, that telling the truth has become outmoded and that puffery is the new norm. He discovers that his new friends and old acquaintances all cheerfully give over to fabrication and falsehoods in everything they say and do. In French society, it had become more and more difficult for an honest individual, such as Albert, to maintain his morals and standards, especially in the salon society of Paris. Through an elegant, yet complex, plot, where nothing is as it seems, Scribe’s play is rife with quirky characters who spout witty dialogue, exposing a world of authorship and publication, politicians and financial intricacies and loopholes. And the playwright does all this with delectable delight.
Artistic Director Nick Sandys has lovingly orchestrated his production with scholarly glee and an eye for skewering our own puffed up society. His talented actors gracefully move in and out of Joe Schermoly’s beautiful designed, aristocratic drawing rooms with purpose and aplomb. Costumed with a bit of whimsy and lots of period perfection by Rachel Lambert, her detailed fabric finery transports each actor, as well as the audience, into a whole other time and place. Victoria Deiorio’s original music and sound design coupled with an exquisite lighting plot by Andrew H. Meyers complete the artistry of this production.
Sandys’ excellent cast offers integrity, passion and a 19th century reality to tell Scribe’s story, while Ranjit Bolt’s clever translation injects his own humorous, contemporary phrases and wording that make the play feel like it was written yesterday. The always magnificent David Darlow is once again captivating in this comedy, playing Cesar Desgaudets. The measured calm that Darlow delivers throughout this play depicts his character’s years of acceptance of a society that’s grounded in lies. Never flashy or over the top, Mr. Darlow conveys a sensible father and businessman who knows and supports the world in which he lives.
Joshua Moaney is an eloquent, earnest Albert d’Angremont, the returning military man who’s Eugene Scribe’s voice in this play. His attitude reflects how appalled he is at what’s happened to society. Truth, honor and virtue are all things of the past and the abundance of deception and trickery, combined with out-and-out lies and manipulation, are abhorrent to the gentleman. Mr. Moaney delivers this perfectly, while mooning over his secret lady love, played with sophisticated restraint by lovely Netta Walker.
Two other actors standout in this production. Christopher Sheard plays Comte de Marignan, a bogus bully and a writer of histories extracted from the personal memoirs he’s secretly purchased. The vigor and vehemence with which Mr. Sheard launches into this role is astonishing and he rules every scene in which he’s involved. With Mr. Sheard’s performance the audience becomes captivated by his character and intrigued about where he’s headed. His character has also entranced the feisty Corinne Desgaudets, Cesar’s memoir-writing daughter. She’s played with equal fire and passion by the exciting Kelsey Brennan. Whenever these two actors mount the stage the intensity level of the play increases to a fever pitch; put both of these characters into a single scene and we experience the electrical fervor of Shakespeare’s Petruchio and Katerina. It’s said that opposites attract and in this theatrical couple Sandys has guided his actors to elevate that theory to the max.
Eugene Scribe’s comedy is as entertaining as it is relevant and revealing. It’s impossible to attend this smart, sincere production without thinking about the road down which this country is madly careening. Fake news and the truth are continually at odds in 21st century America. It’s a frightening and alarming premise but, in Ranjit Bolt’s wise and witty translation, and Nick Sandys’ glorious production, this period play turns into a comical cautionary tale for today.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 22-January 7 by Remy Bumppo Theatre at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-404-7336 or by going to www.remybumppo.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.