Corpsing is easy. Comedy is hard.
The Barber of Seville, a postmodern cross between the 1775 Beaumarchais play and the 1816 Rossini opera, is an entertainingly ludicrous affair first staged by Theatre Columbus to acclaim in Toronto in 1996.
Michael O’Brien stitched together the classic source material with plenty of pleasing anachronisms, while John Millard adapted Rossini’s music for a five-piece bluegrass band – with occasional instrumental additions from the rest of the cast.
Soulpepper is now reviving this musical mash-up with original director Leah Cherniak back in charge. Dan Chameroy, criminally underused at Stratford Festival in recent seasons, makes his debut with the Toronto company, starring as Figaro, the clever servant who helps his master in wooing.
In this case, that would be the infamous libertine, Count Almaviva (Gregory Prest), who has disguised himself as a troubadour to court Rosina (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), the beautiful ward of Don Bartolo (Oliver Dennis), who naturally plans to marry her himself.
Beaumarchais’s plot is a classic one, full of stock characters – none stockier than Figaro. Northrop Frye noted that the dolosus servus or tricky slave figure birthed in New Comedy “represents the wrigglings and squirmings of exploited people” – and none has likely ever been as wriggly or squirmy as Chameroy, who in his highly physical approach to the role constantly resembles a worm trying to get off a hook. (O’Brien’s script, in a twist in tone at the end, underlines the character’s kinship with the exploited of the world.)
With his bulky body and deep, resonant voice, Chameroy is not a natural Figaro. The versatile comedian is more often cast as less-than-clever bullies or, to dip into stock characters, braggart soldiers. (He was a memorable Miles Gloriosus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Stratford.)
While his Figaro lacks a certain wiliness, Chameroy’s knack for pratfalls, talent for burlesquing opera and pure commitment to the chaos still carry him through the miscasting.
As for the usual Soulpepper crew on board, they are clearly enjoying themselves as they try on Cherniak’s clownish style. Perhaps too clearly enjoying themselves, in fact.
At the start of the second act, when Count Almaviva dons a pair of preposterously positioned fake breasts to disguise himself in order to get access to Rosina, Prest kept rubbing his fake breasts all over Dennis’s Don Bartolo on opening night; the latter could not keep a straight face for more than a few seconds at a time.
When an actor laughs on stage it’s called “corpsing” and many in the audience found this hilarious. But, as the metatheatrical moment morphed into merely a muddled one, it only underlined the indulgent side of the evening for me.
Prest, his eyes gleaming with mischief, communicated the fun he was having throughout, but neglected to make his love (or lust) for Rosina as equally apparent. Ditto for his aristocratic airs – making his hatred of middle-class Don Bartolo confusing. And his singing voice is not exactly going to get him on stage at the Canadian Opera Company any time soon.
Indeed, musically, Chameroy aside, Lancaster is the only performer who really kills it in the style-shifting score. In an aria that flirts with opera, then goes pop diva, she brings her feisty, proto-feminist Rosina to full life. She emerges as the Bugs Bunny of this live-action cartoon. (Yes, the Warner Brothers classic Rabbit of Seville is as much inspiration here as Beaumarchais or Rossini.)
Dennis, when not being sabotaged by his castmate, did a fine job finding the right balance between nonsense and sensibility too. Too much of the proceedings, however, are played like a joke – and, at a certain point, you wish for anarchy to be balanced by a little more virtuosity. For a comedy to sustain for two hours and 35 minutes, it needs to be taken more seriously.