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This past Wednesday, Appalachian State University’s Department of Theatre and Dance presented a lively, laughter-filled opening night of The Bourgeois Gentleman in Valborg Theatre, the University Theatre Mainstage. This adaption of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, a 1670 play by renowned French playwright Molière, has been newly translated by Bernard Sahlins and remains true to the original. Directed by Derek Gagnier, the comedic play is set in late 17th century Paris, and, through the whims and follies of Monsieur Jourdain, explores the notion of nobility and what makes someone a true gentleman.
Monsieur Jourdain (Nick Isley) is a wealthy tradesman who, as a descendant of a shopkeeper, hires tutors in order to obtain the knowledge and polish of a gentleman amid his shameless pursuit of the charming Countess Dormiene. At Monsieur Jourdain’s home, the play opens with Music Master (Casey Burton) and the Dance Master (Chloe Mason) in a spirited exchange about Jourdain’s lavish display of wealth and utter lack of ability, despite their attempts to teach him the gentlemanly ways of music and dance. Monsieur Jourdain enters and flaunts his fanciful outfit chosen for a day of tutoring. After Monsieur Jourdain fails wretchedly at a simple dance, the Fencing Master (Joshua Cornett) begins a lesson in swordsmanship and “demonstrative logic.” In this setting, Monsieur Jourdain seems naturally opposed to holding a sword and coordinating his movements. Quickly, the next lesson of the day ensues, a spelling lesson on how to physically form and pronounce vowels with the Philosopher (Elijah Golden), because logic, ethics, and physics are not “pretty” enough in the eyes of Monsieur Jourdain. The rapport of these four characters, particularly the performance by Burton and Mason, was my personal favorite part of the production, and I found myself hoping for their return to the stage.
In these tutoring sessions, Monsieur Jourdain is a source of comedy for the audience. While sincere and genuine in his attempts to refine his gentlemanly class, he is delightfully naïve and arguably incapable. When the tailor arrives with a new suit and Jourdain patronizes her in his indication that the Fleurs-de-lis are upside down, he is quickly satisfied when she insists that all the gentlemen wear it this way! As soon as Madame Jourdain (Micah Livesay) and the servant, Nicole (Laura Pennachi), saw Monsieur Jourdain in his new ostentatious get-up, the laughter was infectious!
The plot quickly picks up speed as Monsieur Jourdain and his “dear friend” Dorante (Clayton Paige) plan a dinner for the lovely Countess Dormiene (Zoë Nagel), who they are both pining for, though Dorante’s pursuit is unbeknownst to Jourdain. Meanwhile, Monsieur Jourdain refuses to marry his daughter Lucile (Alexandra Rowland) to Cleonte (Tim Christopher) because the suitor admitted to his lack of a title of noble birth. Naturally, Cleonte and his friend Covielle (Richard Barker) devise a plan to deceive the gullible Monsieur Jourdain. The hilarious charade entertaining Monsieur Jourdain’s follies and desires for high status is one that must be witnessed! The actors conveyed Molière’s farce with such comedic quality that I must not spoil the fun, but I will tease: imagine a faux Turkish prince and an ostensibly costumed “old” interpreter.
The play itself is highly comical, poking fun at Monsieur Jourdain’s opulence, naïveté, and desire for nobility, which his wife likens to “no ability” and pure “carnival time.” Madame Jourdain ventures to remind her husband of their descent from shopkeepers, which, though not labeled “noble,” established a foundation of sincere hard work rather than folly, hearsay, and an empty title. It was in Livesay’s embodiment of Madame Jourdain that the notion of nobility was questioned. What truly is noble? Fruitlessly aspiring to nobility or remaining true to your roots? Livesay’s performance was beautifully moral and wise, and in sharp contrast to the spontaneous quality of Isley as Monsieur Jourdain, she was poised and articulate in her snide remarks. Isley personified the want-to-be gentleman, employing absurd gestures, happily ignorant expressions, and impeccable timing to create a big, loveable character worthy of a good laugh.
While the actors communicated the messages well and were oftentimes brilliant in their comedic timing, the concept of “Frenchness” was missing. Apart from the use of “Bonjour!” and “Bonsoir!” intermittently and the mimicry by Monsieur Jourdain of the famous pose from Hyacinthe Rigaud’s portrait Louis XIV, there were no other inherently French characteristics. The accents assumed by many of the actors were confusing; they weren’t French and they weren't consistent, which would have been fine had their use been explained.
As noted by the director, nobles in late 17th century France inherited their titles through “noble birth;” only in a rare circumstance did the King bestow a title on an esteemed middle-class bourgeoisie. In this way, it is imperative to use your imagination to pair Monsieur Jourdain’s humorous efforts, atrocious taste, and unabashed pursuit of the Countess Dormiene with the fact that, as a shopkeeper’s son, Monsieur Jourdain will never obtain a title regardless of what he learns or what money he accumulates. This detail enhances the comedy of Molière’s clever play and augments the audience’s interpretation of Monsieur Jourdain as extravagantly foolish and funny.
Scenic artist Catherine DeCarlis, with the help of Nga Sze Chan, has designed a warm, inviting set with a hand-sketched quality that stands over 12 feet tall and captures the exorbitance of Monsieur Jourdain’s home and 17th century Parisian elegance. With the help of Janie Nordeen, costume shop supervisor Kristin Grieneisen has designed costumes that are royally exuberant. Lucile’s dress in satin blue is particularly alluring. Led by stage manager Lindsay Douglass and technical director Matt Tyson, the ambiance of the theatre, including the warm light and delicate music, surrounds the audience. The closeness of the set along with the actors entering from the sides of the theatre and the wings provide the immediate effect of feeling like you're physically sitting in Monsieur Jourdain’s home!
Being invited into the home of the bourgeois gentleman himself for opening night was an entertaining undertaking. My face was sore from bouts of laughter – how the cast kept from laughing, I will never know. Whether or not you are familiar with the work of Molière, this production will give you a peek into 17th century France's notion of nobility, and after recovering from laughter, it will leave you asking the question “what is noble?”
The Bourgeois Gentlemen continues through Sunday, February 27. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.