A nineteenth century comedy that’s still funny? With the world premiere of an adaptation by Ranjit Bolt of Eugène Scribe’s Puff, Remy Bumppo proves it is possible. Scribe is mostly known today to theatre academics, but he was one of the principal developers of such a thing as an entertainment industry, churning out hundreds of plays on themes, such as the acquisition of money, which were of interest to middle-class audiences. He did this by devising complicated plots which could then unfold in a way that seemed mechanical. But in Bolt’s adaptation, under the direction of Nick Sandys, a satirical edge is quite apparent in Scribe’s play, and a cadre of actors provides several hours of amusement as they spin around their rotten little world.
Love and Money Ruled by Speculation
“Well-made plays” as they came to be called feature lots of complications which the characters only gradually become aware of, and Puff is no exception. To make a long premise short, Albert d’Angremont (Joshua Moaney), ideal soldier, has just returned to Paris to Algeria to discover that the rapid production of vast amounts of “news” literature has created a culture entirely based on lying. Or, as his newfound friend, César Desgaudets (David Darlow) puts it, puff—lies nobody falls for, but everyone makes use of by treating as true. Albert had hoped to marry Antonia (Netta Walker), who happens to be César’s ward and the sister of his friend, Maxence (Gregory Geffrard), but he fears he is too poor and Maxence intends to marry Antonia off to his wealthy creditor, the Comte de Marignan (Christopher Sheard).
Not knowing who it is Albert has his eye on, Maxence lets Albert in on his secret. With the rise of the stock market, gossip and ghost-written editorials in the financial section can be used to create a huge demand for hypothetical, probably never-to-be-realized assets. The money goes up in smoke as soon as it comes in, but with his family’s reputation for wealth and bankable name, people keep extending him lines of credit despite an unbroken track record of failure. Until now, that is, when Marignan is intending to take on a much larger public profile which will bring him more scrutiny and could ruin Gregory at any moment. Marrying Antonia to him is Maxence’s only hope, but there are other complications besides Albert and Antonia’s affections.
Remy Bumppo Cast Poised for Mischief
Sandys keeps a light tone as the play takes shape into a story about a bunch of morons trying to scam each other. Geffrard’s Maxence and Sheard’s Marignan are vacuous, bratty, and goofy, with Maxence being casually devious and Marignon obliviously self-absorbed, although there are a few hints he’s more cunning than he seems. Orchestrating the conflict is César’s daughter, Corinne (Kelsey Brennan), an ambitious literary critic who finds liberation in the power of the acid pen and plans to ensnare Marignan as her own husband for entirely selfish reasons. Brennan is one of the funniest things in the show, stabbing at her journal with righteous fury which straddles the line between real and performative in-universe. But of course, the point is that there is no line.
David Darlow’s role as César allows him to spin elaborate verbal webs all the while decrying the power of rhetorical flourishes to deceive. He’s dry and cunning, a perfect match for his role, as are Moaney and Walker as bullheadedly moral lovers. Credit should also go to Peter A. Davis in the role of Napoléon Bouvard, the publisher behind most of the puff. Bouvard is the most-seemingly normal person in the play, getting flustered by the others’ antics and accidentally letting his scorn for them slip out, and yet, he’s the biggest enabler of the corrupt culture we see.
Bright Costumes in a Vivacious World
The play is long and plot-heavy, but it never feels stalled and fresh laughs are always quick to come. While much of the humor derives from the outrageousness of the characters, another constant source of delight is Rachel Lambert’s costume design. The excessive finery brightens up the stage and creates a clown-like atmosphere appropriate to Scribe’s satire. While Scribe’s way of setting up plots was criticized by later writers because it had become so ubiquitous, the cleverness of how he resolves everything is a treat, and Bolt’s self-aware translation/adaptation keeps the play from showing its age. Part of Remy Bumppo’s mission is to breathe life into plays that are highly literary, and with this world premiere, they’ve provided audiences interested in nineteenth-century period pieces with a unique opportunity to enjoy another era’s pop culture.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Greenhouse Theater Center
2257 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago
Through January 7, 2018
Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm
Sundays at 2:30 pm
December 20, December 21, December 23, December 30 at 2:30 pm
Running time of 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis is a freelance writer and dramaturge. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of dramatic literature and interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham. His professional work includes developing new performance pieces such as The Blues Ain’t a Color. Since moving to Chicago in 2014 he has reviewed theatre, written articles, and conducted interviews for a number of websites.
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