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BAPTISTE By William Luce

A critical review of the Hartford Stage's production of "Baptiste" by William Luce.

By William Luce
Directed by David Warren
At Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, Conn.,
through June 24, 2001
(860) 527-5151

The 2001 season at Hartford Stage has seen an international parade of classic plays by great playwrights -- Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Tennessee Williams. The season-ending production follows that theme, with a twist. It's the world premiere of a play not by, but about, the master of French comedy, Molière.

In the mid-17th century, Molière -- the stage name of Jean-Baptiste Pocquelin -- changed the face of stage comedy forever. To the traditional comic ingredients of stock figures and knockabout farce, he added biting social satire, which grew out of hilarious personifications of human foibles and vices: fakes and frauds, misers and misanthropes. I mention this most important fact about Molière because it's never mentioned at all in this play about Molière.

"Baptiste: The Life of Molière" was commissioned by Hartford Stage from the playwright William Luce -- a good choice, on paper. Luce specializes in dramatic biographies of literary and theatrical personalities. Best known for "The Belle of Amherst," about Emily Dickinson, he's also painted stage portraits of Lillian Hellman, John Barrymore, Isak Dineson, Nijinksy, and others. Here he uses some of the conventions of his previous biodramas, especially the confessional narrative, with the title character addressing the audience directly, as if we were a group of backstage visitors.

"Baptiste" purports to be a tour of Molière's life and times, with illustrative examples from his plays. And so it is. But rather than illuminating the artist and his art, Luce has opted for a kind of TV-movie biopic, mixing moldy old jokes with excruciating sentimentality, and putting a tabloid rumor at the center of its plot.

David Warren's production is a nice blend of elegance and simplicity. It's performed on a largely bare stage (with tastefully evocative touches by designer Jim Youmans) by three actors and four dancing extras, all seven smartly costumed and bewigged by Toni-Leslie James, and accompanied by the Baroque music that decorated the silly royal entertainments Molière was constantly churning out for his patron, King Louis XIV.

Luce's script self-consciously mirrors some of the elements of Molière's own plays. It's divided into five short acts, the secondary characters are broad comic caricatures, and a lot of the jokes are crude and lewd. But this device only serves to show up this play's weaknesses. The foolery in Molière's plays is, well, classic, and Luce's imitation is just cheap.

The play takes place over the last five years of Molière's life, 1669 to 1673. Each act corresponds to one of those years and is built around one of his plays that was performed in that year: "Tartuffe," "The Bourgeois Gentleman," "Scapin the Schemer," "The Learned Ladies," and "The Imaginary Invalid" -- the show he was performing in when he collapsed onstage, near death. An excerpt from each of the plays is shown, either in rehearsal or performance, and the passages are good examples of their themes and elegant, rhymed-couplet style. But rather than complementing or reflecting the narrative that surrounds them, they serve more as diversions, perhaps even padding for "Baptiste's" under-two-hour running time.

Molière was a consummate man of the theater: a great comic actor and a successful producer, as well as the greatest author of stage comedy of his or, many would argue, any time. In Sam Tsoutsouvas's entertaining performance, we see a diligent if irascible professional, but we get no hint of his genius, and that's the playwright's fault. This Molière is almost a hack for hire, who flatters his egotistical royal patron and sees the banning of "Tartuffe," which skewers religious hypocrisy, as more of a commercial inconvenience than an artistic affront.

At one point, Molière says that his passions in life are the theater and sex, in that order. Luce's priorities, though, are the other way around. The main thrust of this oddly unfocused play is a scandalous rumor surrounding Molière's marriage to a girl half his age, and his bittersweet romantic relationship with the actress Madeleine Béjart, who inspired young Jean-Baptiste Pocquelin to shun the family profession and become an actor.

The piece of gossip that brings the curtain down at intermission (on a note that is positively soap-opera) is that Molière's beautiful, faithless young wife Armande -- whom we hear a lot about but never see -- is not really Madeleine's much-younger sister but her illegitimate daughter, and that the father was -- gasp! -- Molière himself.

As Madeleine, Mary Lou Rosato makes an effective contrast with her leading man, her cool equanimity offsetting Tsoutsouvas's restless energy. Rosato also does an amusing turn as the king's reactionary old mother. All the other speaking roles are played by Jeremy Shamos, who has been given free rein to indulge in a series of shameless burlesques. This works nicely in a short scene from the comedia-style farce "Scapin," but his lisping, limp-wristed archbishop, his prancing King Louis, and a completely gratuituous drag act as a burly Teutonic princess are so over the top they made me wince.

In "Baptiste," William Luce is trying to pull off an ambitious trick: to concoct a play about Molière that is like the plays of Molière. Luce is a skillful and imaginative dramatist, but he's no Molière. And in presenting this life as infotainment, he does both his subject and his audience a disservice.

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