Turcaret or The Financier. A Beautiful World Premiere in English That Shows the Limits of Contemporary Commedia Performance.

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

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Photo. Barb Gray for Capital Critics Circle.

Odyssey Theatre’s presentation of Turcaret or the Financier, an 18th Century classic, is a world premiere of the English translation by Joanne Miller and Laurie Steven. Delicate set and luscious costumes by James Lavoie, Almut Ellinghaus’ beautiful masques and wigs, the presence of excellent actors, a precisely Commedia direction that at times became a collective choreography as the actors displaced their expression away from the masked faces to the bodies that floated, skipped and flowed among each other with much grace, beauty, impudence and comic energy. Director Laurie Steven is back among us and her excellent command of the Commedia dell’arte technique that shone through this performance, as each of her characters integrates the conventional Commedia types. In a masterful convergence of lighting effects, dance, and orchestrated destruction, Turcaret’s world of the greedy rising middle class, comes crashing down, opening the way for the next generation of crooks. The French Revolution is not there yet but the middle and lower classes are already showing their teeth, these are still types that do not dare rise beyond their social status.

Great material for a vicious parody that foregrounds a whole cast of nasty individuals, out to rob, pilfer, and get as much money as they can, by tricking, cheating and lying without the slightest twinge of conscience. Only the naïve Baroness, played by newcomer Chandel Gambles, is capable of a short-lived pang of pity for Turcaret, her rich older admirer. We soon forget her moment of weakness however, when we realize how he has treated his wife and obtained vast amounts of money through usury, with his sidekicks Ratsa, Vol and Jasmin, all performed by Jean Doucet an excellent actor who integrates the commedia Lazzi into his performance and produces multiform personalities by transforming his body in most interesting ways.

This show reveals, however, that some plays are not necessarily suited to the Commedia style, no matter how impeccable the performances may be, and no one, more that Mme Steven was capable of such a beautiful orchestration of these interesting types. No matter what Lesage owes to Molière, Turcaret is still another kettle of fish. It is a vicious social satire where the author’s anger allows for no compromise and where the character of the Usurer was , at that period. associated withe Jews. Turcaret is therefore the object of jokes, trickery, a lot of nasty hurtful business that was not necessarily seen as negative behaviour at that period in Europe.  Because Lesage’s play is not a particularly well structured script, what prevails are the portraits of this microcosm of French society which Lesage strips down to the naked truth and plops into awkward situations that do not develop very much because they repeat each other’s behaviour in this generally rotten world. The types are the source of the action and Turcaret is the brunt of all their vile behaviour..If director Steven does try to suggest the cruel reality of this performance , it is soon obvious that masked commedia performance makes the human expression of such real greed and nastiness very difficult to convey.

Somehow, the first portion of the play especially, showed us that the masked performances were not capable of going beyond the conventional commedia gestures, the orchestrated movements that seemed to transform these relations into a form of elegant dance. This was exacerbated by the fact that much of the text at that point was made up of long dialogues which needed the living faces of actors who could express strong nuances of nasty emotion that build up to frenzy at the end. , especially the sly plotting, the cruel humour” that should have been essentially uncomfortable, the lust, the greed, all the horrors of a society obsessed with money, with possessions and empty of any human empathy, This is a very angry play but none of that really got to us because the basic human emotions are diluted in this beautiful commedia choreography. Strangely then, especially during the first part of the evening, the performances almost became monotonous, losing energy, eliciting very little reaction at all. Since they were all subjected to the same acting conventions, the same movements, and since the expressiveness of the human face is ruled out as an instrument , it all depended on significantly heightened corporeal performances of each of these characters. To be honest, although they moved beautifully, I felt they did not capture the savage and cruel essence of their nasty characters because they could not go beyond the playful conventions of the Commedia style. And the faces were there to bring more humanity to the performances. .

Nevertheless, certain moments did capture something special but no one really sunk to the depths of that vicious self-centred lust for money, that one expects from Lesage’s creatures, a level of hateful, destructive selfishness that one finds for example in Moliere’s Tartuffe –spurred on by his hunger for personal power and his lust for Elmire, his host’s wife. And don’t forget that in Tartuffe, all the other characters are victims of this dangerous hypocrite whereas Lesage fills the whole stage with cheating, selfish unbearable individuals each more disgusting than the next. It is much worse. NO one is exempt from this madhouse of sneaks. And yet, this show never brings that out. How was that possible?

Jessie Buck as both Turcaret’s servant (Frontin) and the Knight’s servant (Flamand) , is a master of physical performance and he switched characters with great ease, giving each one a significant personal touch, but both characters remained playful rogues, nothing worse. The charming but cheating knight who uses women to pay his debts, was played by the refined Attila Clemann who moved beautifully and whose voice had great seductive qualities, but he also was never more than a charming Commedia style rogue. On the other hand, the light footed Alanna Bale captured the opposition between the honest Marine and the underhanded Lisette as she gave us a real sense that she was a ruthless little sneak who flirted uncontrollably with all men and should be locked up. This was an excellent performance because her eyes, (in spite of the mask) her body language, her voice, her hairdo, her gestures, were all put into play to create a heightened image of the comedia performance that thankfully, went much beyond the beautiful choreography that dominated the stage. Andy Massingham, as Turcaret, slowly evolved into a near ruthless usurer towards the end of the play, as his demeanor changed, once he learns that his wife (Nichola Lawrence with the bell-like voice) is in Paris and she will spill the beans. Massingham worked with his voice, his gestures acquired an urgency that showed his panic, and he also moved beyond the conventions of the Commedia plunging at moments, into his character.

AS the play evolved, and the relations become more complicated, several of the scenes acquire more intensity and the results, in certain cases, improved immensely. The chaotic ending which literally shows the Baroness , her house and all of Turcaret’s gifts, crashing down around them, all enhanced by the music (Vanessa Lachance), by Glen Davidson’s excellent lighting, created an unforgettable tableau that summed up the meaning of the whole evening – all became a portrait that captured the sum of Laurie Steven’s stage vision. And we must not forget the delicately painted backdrop that echos the precious sensuality of François Boucher whose work appeared during the same period as the play, and suggests the libertinage and pleasures of the flesh, pushed to their extreme in Turcaret. The artistic family involved in this production was impeccable. One can only question the appropriateness of the Commedia form that in many ways betrayed Lesage’s play. How can the company solve such a dilemma in the future? Nevertheless, this is still a lovely performance and offers an eye-catching evening of entertainment.

Turcaret or the financier plays in Strathcona park until August 24, 2014 Performances begin at 8pm. Bring chairs if you wish . Performance lasts 2hours 15 minutes including a 15 minute intermission.


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