Flawed French Farces

REVIEWED BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN

“If Satamian isn’t in them, they won’t be good.”

So pronounced the elderly stranger sitting next to me as we prepared to watch a pair of one-acts – Armenian translations of French farces – staged by the Ardavazt Theater Company in Pasadena.  She was referring to Krikor Satamian, the veteran actor who serves as the troupe’s artistic director.

Satamian did not appear in either play, but his absence was not the reason why “The Brazilian” and “The Doctor in Spite of Himself” did not rank among Ardavazt’s better productions.  After all, Satamian has drawn several talented actors into the Ardavazt fold and generously casts them in leading roles.  “The Brazilian” and “The Doctor in Spite of Himself” were certainly enlivened by the comic contortions of Narine Avakian and Ari Libaridian, respectively.  They were hampered, however, by dated scripts that have not aged well and do not resonate as particularly funny.

Written in the 19th century and set in Paris during the 1860s, “The Brazilian” (by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy) is a romp about love and marriage. Its protagonist, Paulette, wants both from her paramour, Gaston, who happens to be more interested in pursuing her than in catching her.  Gaston, you see, yearns for the cliché romance of novels – dangerous and intriguing – so Paulette devises a phantom suitor, a Brazilian – stereotypically hot-blooded and passionate – to stir his jealousy.

There’s little promise in this premise, and its staging lacks the refined choreography or precise timing that farce requires.  Avakian makes for a beguiling Paulette, and Arpi Emirzian acquits herself as her friend and rival, Micheline, but the male characters suffer caricaturish portrayals.

“The Doctor in Spite of Himself” harks back to the 17th century, when wife-beating was apparently a laughing matter.  In this lesser work by the great French satirist Molière, a beaten wife seeks revenge against her drunkard of a husband by declaring him to be a gifted physician.  (Notions of payback must have differed in that earlier era as well.)  Libaridian’s portrayal of the charlatan conjures up a pirate as much as it does a faith healer, but his over-the-top performance injects the show with a healthy dose of energy.

Farces make up the vast majority of the Ardavazt ensemble’s repertoire, ranging in recent years from trite (“A Lost Letter”) to triumphant (“The Venetian Twins”).   Hopefully, the company’s next outing will mark a return to the latter realm.

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