At the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's dizzy, lavish A Flea in Her Ear, there's only one problem most audience members might face: They might be glutted.
So generous is Georges Feydeau's 1907 farce (and David Ives' new adaptation) with double-entendres and door slams and escalating complications, and so frequent and hearty are the laughs elicited as director Gary Griffin and his company work through the elegant knots of Feydeau's masterwork, that I greeted the second intermission with a bit of enthusiasm. After the hurly-burly of the second act, here was a chance to savor the pleasures that had been breezing by so quickly.
The story turns on a romantic trap, a proposed assignation in a letter penned by a pair of bourgeois mesdames as a test for a husband they think has been unfaithful. If he shows up at the Frisky Puss Hotel, he's a cad; if he doesn't, he's a saint.
Wife Raymonde, bristling with horny ennui as played by the marvelous Carol Halstead, suspects her man partly because of some errant suspenders — but mostly because lately he's been impotent. "This put a flea in my ear, all right," she says.
That flea stirs chaos of the first order. Once Raymonde's husband receives said letter, he gloats about it to his friends, whose vanities and jealousies set off fleas of their own. Misunderstandings accumulate, and soon a whole host of couples are off to the Puss, careering off one another like pinballs. In other shows, this kind of thing can get headachey, but Griffin's pace is steady, and his action is clear. The mounting calamities are unlikely to surprise us, so Griffin invites the audience to savor their approach, coaxing a rare, anticipatory laughter. We laugh at the build-up to the next farcical turn, relishing the mayhem to come — mayhem that, when it hits, is all the more satisfying for our anticipation.
So, when we learn that the hotel (a plush marvel from scenic designer Jack Magaw) is outfitted with a spinning bed and a secret door, or when we discover that the impotent husband is a dead ringer for the hotel's drunken bellboy (both well handled by John Scherer), we giggle both at the silliness of the conceits and at the havoc they'll stir.
A farce's setup can often be tedious, sometimes like waiting for water to boil, but Griffin's scenes engage even when the water is cold. The opening is highlighted by Jonathan Root as a crowd-favorite fool who erupts in dazzling gibberish, by Mark Robbins as a dirty-minded doctor in a ridiculous pince-nez, and by the delicious Anne L. Nathan as a wife who's as oversexed as Raymonde is the opposite.
The second act does involve some minor labor, but its payoff — Scott Cordes booting the bottom of a wealthy monsieur — is richer still. Throughout, costume designer Mara Blumenfeld's gowns and harlot getups brighten the already cheery mood.
Griffin directed Ives' translation for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and he recently helmed The Color Purple on Broadway, further evidence that the Rep is becoming a national theater that has the good fortune to draw upon Kansas City talent. Invaluable local contributions come from sound designer John Story and from actors Martin Buchanan as a cuckolded valet and Allan Boardman as a withered old drunk who only turns up where nobody wants him.
This is the finale of artistic director Eric Rosen's first season, and while the show's lightness and spirit differ from most of what he has mounted, its momentousness feels of a piece. For the first time in recent memory, each Rep production is an event. Better still, each is extraordinary theater.
Griffin's production wells with love for theatrical traditions — the footlights, that second intermission, a sumptuous curtain that spares us from watching the set dressers. Still, there's nothing nostalgic here. Early on, plotting her silly scheme, Halstead's Raymonde observes, "It's the old ploys that work the best." The implication is that this bored wife sets the farce in motion, not because of her uncertainty about her husband's fidelity but because setting a farce in motion — well, isn't setting a farce in motion enough?
Happily, those old ploys come to life for her and for us. Griffin and the Rep take on the old as if it were new, with vision and vitality. In English or French, in 1907 or 2009, A Flea in Her Ear is the freshest, funniest show around.
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