THEATER

Theater Review: Constellation Theatre's 'A Flea in Her Ear'

Constellation's farce has high-energy entrances, exits and plenty of mix-ups.
Constellation's farce has high-energy entrances, exits and plenty of mix-ups. (Daniel Schwartz)
By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 15, 2009

If Constellation Theatre Company's "A Flea in Her Ear" were a dessert, it would be one part airy souffle, two parts tough-on-the-jaw-muscles fruitcake.

Artistic Director Allison Arkell Stockman's production of Georges Feydeau's 1907 farce kicks off with an hour or so of light-as-spun-sugar buffoonery, complete with droll portrayals and deftly calibrated stage business. Later, though, the pace falters and the novelty wears thin. As the three-hour mark approaches, the characters' absurd mix-ups and frenzied entrances and exits -- the staples of farce -- begin to seem tedious rather than delightful.

Still, it's impressive that Stockman and her actors achieve the success they do, given that "Flea" is the dramaturgical equivalent of a juggling act on a flying trapeze: Without precision and split-second timing, the whole business could be a flop.

Jauntily adapted here by contemporary playwright David Ives, Feydeau's giddy tale concerns an insurance executive named Victor Chandebise (Michael Glenn), whose wife, Raymonde (Katie Atkinson), suspects him of having an affair. When she lays a trap for him at the disreputable Frisky Puss Hotel, with help from her friend Lucienne (Heather Haney), who's married to a jealous Spaniard (John Tweel), bourgeois respectability explodes into a brouhaha involving a set of garters, a revolving bed, a missing medical prosthesis, two women in French-maid outfits and other screwball ingredients.

In the Constellation production, set in the 1920s, the daffiness spins out on A.J. Guban's handsome set, which represents both the yellow-and-white Chandebise drawing room and -- after a staircase, reception desk and seedy cat mural slide on -- the Frisky Puss Hotel. Each milieu boasts the numerous doors necessary for the tale's pursuits, escapes and concealments.

Many of the actors who gallivant around this environment do so with panache. Matt McGloin is terrific as Victor's blithe nephew, Camille, whose inability to pronounce consonants figures critically in the plot. Scowling and brandishing a pistol, Tweel is hilarious as Don Carlos Homenides de Histangua, and Haney gives just the right mischievous elegance to his spouse, Lucienne. Michael Glenn stalks about engagingly in a tailcoat as the phlegmatic Victor, and Ashley Ivey -- wearing a lavender suit with a pink pocket square -- brings amusing sleaziness to Dr. Finache, medical examiner for Victor's firm.

Not all the performances are airtight, perhaps because of bad directorial calls. Joe Brack can be extremely funny as Victor's egoistic friend Romain Tournel, but at times he strays into exaggerated mannerisms (giggling, lustful fawning) that compete with, rather than contribute to, the farce's manic energy. Similarly, in Act 2, Frank Britton and Charlotte Akin, depicting the proprietors of the Frisky Puss, and Gwen Grastorf, who plays their chambermaid, Eugenie, execute a lot of unnecessary shtick (Eugenie's lewd dusting routine, for instance), slowing the production.

If Stockman has misjudged on some scores, she and her designers do supply witty touches -- such as the pink light that flushes the stage whenever an Act I character mentions amorous matters. (Guban devised the lighting.) Kendra Rai's meticulous Jazz Age costumes, including drop-waisted, candy-colored frocks for the women, look scrumptious and tie the production successfully to the exuberance of the flapper era. And Jesse Terrill's original music -- hinting at jazz and French accordion classics -- supplies just the right atmospherics. If only the entire production had the momentum of Terrill's tunes.

A Flea in Her Ear, adapted by David Ives from Georges Feydeau's play. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman; properties design, Fran Nelson; fight choreography, Joe Brack; sound engineer, Andrew Nelson. With Matt Hicks, Lewis Freeman, Stephanie Roswell and Joseph Thornhill. Two hours 50 minutes. Through Nov. 8 at Source, 1835 14th St. NW. Call 202-204-7741 or visit http://www.constellationtheatre.org.


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