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April 25, 2014

Making Sure THE BUNGLER Isn’t Bungled

Tuesday evening, April 8, 2014. Matthew Teague Miller, an MFA candidate in directing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is enjoying his cast’s final dress rehearsal. Months earlier when he was mapping out choices for his thesis production, he knew he wanted to do a Moliere, but which one?

After reading most every script with Jean-Baptiste Poquelin’s pen name on it, Miller decided to take a chance on an almost unknown one from 1653: L’ÉTOURDI OU LES CONTRETEMPS, which loosely translates to THE DIZZY OR THE SETBACK. Moliere’s third play was so obscure that even Richard Wilbur didn’t get around to translating, adapting and placing it in rhymed couplets until 1999. He aptly retitled it THE BUNGLER -- a good choice, for even in this early work, Moliere had already found a theme he’d repeatedly use: servants are smarter than their masters.

As soon as Lelie (that’s a man) and his servant Mascarille enter, the former announces that his rival won’t beat him out for the love of Celie. Mascarille dutifully listens, knowing that he’ll be asked to help the cause. And indeed Mascarille gives Lelie a scheme certain to win Celie.

Alas, Lelie’s sheer stupidity stymies it, so Mascarille must go to Plan B. Unfortunately, Lelie’s so dense that he mucks up that one as well. Ditto Mascarille’s Plans C through E. No, the high-and-mighty aren’t remotely high-and-mighty in brainpower; it’s the so-called low-born who have the endless mental resources.

Now, with about 20 minutes to go in the dress rehearsal, Miller’s particularly enjoying a trio of cast members whom he’d added in order to include two new ideas. Two hours earlier at the show’s start, the first had gone well, when The Three Players came out to set up the action and the furniture. Only moments passed when they mimed an argument over where certain pieces belonged. Should that orange crate go here, go there, go where?

Okay, that device was shopworn even before Moliere’s time, but Miller had a good joke to cap it off. A half-hour later, when one irate character decided to make a sudden exit, he banged into the crate on his way out. Yes, for all the jockeying of where the box should go, it wound up in the incorrect spot.

Now, with about 10 minutes to go, Miller was looking forward to his pièce de résistance during Mascarille’s l-o-n-g speech in which the character describes m-u-c-h off-stage action. He has The Three Players come on to do a dumb show of all the dumb happenings that Moliere didn’t dramatize but only described. Miller knows that one cardinal playwriting rule is “Show, don’t tell,” so he’s decided to do just that: make his threesome perform in mime what’s merely described in rhyme.

While THE BUNGLER may never be included in MOLIERE’S GREATEST HITS, Mascarille is the character in the entire ouevre with the most lines. Here Miller is especially pleased, because Miranda Barnett, one of the school’s premier stars, is as enchanting as he’d expected her to be.

Yes, Moliere wrote Mascarille for a man, but when a talent as formidable as Barnett is on the scene, a director seizes the chance. Besides, there’s no reason why Mascarille can’t be played by a woman. There must be something to the term “feminine wiles,” or Google wouldn’t have 288,000 references for the expression, would it?

So as the rehearsal is wrapping up, Miller sees that everyone is ready for the Wednesday opening. Won’t the audience be delivering non-stop laugh -- oh, no! Wait! Oh, my God! No!

To paraphrase Julia Sweeney, the theatrical gods say “Ha!” For now, so near yet so far from the final curtain, an actor’s costume gets wet, splashes water, and Barnett slips on the spillage and falls.


And hurts her wrist.

On her right hand, yet.

Good captain that he is, Miller is first and foremost interested in the well-being of his performer. He makes certain that Barnett is rushed to the hospital and gets the care she needs. But he also can’t help thinking, what happens if she can’t continue? Barnett has no understudy. No college production does, especially with a role of this magnitude.

The news is worse than Miller and Barnett fear. It’s not a sprain but a break. Surgery is scheduled for Thursday, so clearly that night’s performance and of course Wednesday’s opening will be canceled.

But will the entire run of the show be scuttled? Could Miller really ask Barnett to rejoin the cast now that she has a very different kind of cast in a sling?

Just try to keep Barnett from returning. Yes, to be certain, she wants that titanic applause that will now greet both her performance and her pluck. But she also knows that Miller’s degree depends on her. She even agreed to come in early for costume designer Lauren Pivirotto, who felt that that a white sling just wouldn’t do. The costume staff would whip up a red sling that would color-coordinate with Barnett’s costume.

Now it’s Friday, when I fly in – originally to attend the third performance that would have allowed the actors two previews for adjustments. Instead, I’ll now see performers who may have become a bit rusty from the two-day layoff.

Not at all. And Barnett, from her first finger wag on her good hand, exhibits genuine star quality. Her Mascarille is always thinking. When she’s accused of wrongdoing, she adopts a proud smile that wisely stops just short of a smirk. She knows enough to never admit guilt.

It’s oft been said that if a person has only one hand at his disposal that he compensates by having the other hand do twice as much. To say that Barnett’s left hand does the work of two might be a left-handed compliment; it may be doing precisely what it would have done had her right hand been able to what she’d planned for it. Whatever the case, Barnett exhibits terrific Body English (or should we say Body French?)

This lady had to be a cat in another life – undoubtedly in ancient Egypt, when Egyptians worshipped cats. In fact, directors out there who want to do CATS (and I’m not hoping for any) would be wise to cast Barnett as Grizabella. She could sing it, for she’s performed opera. Is there anything this woman can’t do?

You’d think that her balance would have to be affected by the injury, but it clearly isn’t, not the way she bestrides the stage like a colossal star. If she’s in pain – and how can she not be a day after surgery? – she never let us sees it. How I would have loved to have seen her at literally full strength! But I and everyone else must be grateful that we’re seeing her at all.

And when Lelie inadvertently sabotages the plan, she bears it with a patient shrug as if to say, “What can I possibly expect from this moron?” and moves on, confident that she’ll always think of something else. He doesn’t make it easy, and Barnett has the perfect delivery when droning, “You ought to run a fencing school, for how well you avoid the point.”

As Lelie, Alan Miller (no relation to the director) looks wonderfully contrite when she admonishes him, knowing that her punishment does fit his crime of omission. Lelie is like the kid we all knew in grammar school who was always intent on finishing first and bringing his paper up to the teacher before anyone else, not realizing that taking extra time to review might allow him to catch some errors. This Lelie is always reassuring Mascarille that yes, he understands the plan; yes, he’s knows what he has to do; no, you don’t have to go over again – but later as the ruse is actually unfolding, he finds that he isn’t as prepared as he thought he was and that he should have listened more attentively. Now he’s scrambling to remember what he assured Mascarille he’d easily remember. In other words, Lelie doesn’t realize that fraud is in the details.

It takes a smart actor to play stupid, and Alan Miller is especially superb in one scene in which Mascarille comes on wearing a mask; when he takes it off her, a much too long amount of time passes before he recognizes that it’s she.

Such a play always has mistaken identity, so Mascarille disguises Lelie as a man from Tunis. Both Millers get some laughs as Lelie deals with a virtual woman’s dress that is the fashion for Tunisian men, smoothing it out in a most feminine way. That Lelie doesn’t realize how the gesture looks makes it funny, but his director ensures that he doesn’t overdo it.

Now usually in plays such as this, no one notices that the disguised person bears an uncanny resemblance to the other. But Moliere – or Wilbur – won’t settle for suspension-of-disbelief. Instead, when Celie’s captor Trufaldin (Emma Crumpler, fine in another gender-bending role) almost recognizes the disguised Lelie, Barnett comes through yet again with a matter-of-fact “It’s eerie how alike some men must be.”

In the center of the charming mini-village that Emma Ford designed is a reflecting pool. To paraphrase Chekhov: if a pool is on stage, some character must eventually fall into it. But director Miller doesn’t make obvious that actor Miller will take a plunge. He stands in front, almost imperceptibly leans back, and suddenly he and his gluteus maximus are at the bottom of the pool. What a laugh he gets when he rises and walks off in soaked defeat.

The Three Players enter to mop up the displaced water. But who’s next to enter? Wouldn’t you know it’s Mascarille. Barnett could be pardoned if she were a bit afraid that she’d slip again, but she doesn’t and continues zipping around the stage. After a few minutes, I even forget that she’s been injured.

What a pleasure to see college kids do so well by classical theater, and make the rhymed couplets sound perfectly natural and not the least on-the-nose sing-songy. Credit them and Matthew Teague Miller for that, too, as well as little subtleties. We’ve all seen plays in which someone takes a drink, doesn’t like its taste and spits it onto someone’s face. But after the able Drew Greene does just that and expectorates onto his servant’s kisser, Morgan Whisnant gets an extra audience giggle from her blank expression. It says, “Yes, of course; by now I should have expected that; it’s all in a day’s work because my master doesn’t have the brains to turn the other way when he wants to spit.”

And just when we think we’ve seen everything, in comes Cameron Newton -- no, not the Cameron Newton who quarterbacks for the nearby Carolina Panthers, but a diminutive freshman who’d be an ideal Og in FINIAN’S RAINBOW. His character is a holy terror who fully expects Celie to fall madly in love with him. That he is completely unaware that she only sees his, shall-we-say, shortcomings makes this fearless peanut explode, which considerably ups the hilarity.

Of course I don’t know every performer in the UNC-Greensboro theater department, but Matthew Teague Miller gets a gold – nay, platinum -- star for the way he’s cast THE BUNGLER. Better still is the way he’s made clear the play’s many machinations. Here’s that delicious “Ohhhhhhhhh!” that comes from an engaged audience that has attentively followed the plot and sees another complication on the horizon. No question that this is a director worth watching.

But casting Barnett is the crowning glory. Before the final curtain, the plot demands that Mascarille pretend to be a foreign innkeeper, so Barnett adopts a flawless Viennese accent that’s pure Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Once again: is there anything this woman can’t do? We’ve all heard of performers who can conquer roles with such ease that people say they could do them “with one hand tied behind their backs.” Miranda Barnett did her magnificent Mascarille with one tied in front.

         — Peter Filichia

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