SALT LAKE CITY – Chuck Jones, the animator behind the golden era of Warner Brothers cartoons, said, “Comedy is unusual people in real situations; farce is real people in unusual situations.” This quote might have been a better starting point for the University of Utah Department of Theatre’s production of “A Flea in Her Ear” by Georges Feydeau currently playing at the Babcock Theatre. It is a fun night at the theater, but just slightly misses the mark. The script is a classic French farce in a recent translation by David Ives that involves mistaken identities, slamming doors, infidelity and eventual reconciliation.
The plot revolves around Raymonde Chandebise who suspects her husband of having an affair. In an attempt to catch him in the act, she conspires with her friend Lucienne to send an anonymous note arranging a rendezvous at the Frisky Puss Hotel. When her husband, Victor, receives the note, he thinks it must be for his friend Tournel, who is secretly trying to arrange an affair with Victor’s wife. Meanwhile Camille, Victor’s nephew, is having an affair with Antoinette, the maid, unbeknownst to her husband, Etienne, the butler. Lucienne’s husband is a hot-blooded Spaniard, Don Carlos Homenides de Histangua, who recognizes the writing on the note and suspects his wife of being unfaithful to him, and decides to kill her. Everyone eventually ends up at the Frisky Puss Hotel where confusion and mayhem abound.
The actors all executed their roles with gusto. Paul Chaus as Don Carlos was a joy to watch because really seemed to throw himself into the role and there was never a doubt that he was fully invested in his character. Jaten Lee McGriff was very convincing in portraying two characters, Victor Chandebise and the bellboy Poche. Several times he had only a few moments off stage to switch characters and created two very distinct, believable characters. Christian Seiter, however, deserves a special notice. He did especially well as Camille Chandebise, a character with a speech impediment and is unable to pronounce consonants. It is a difficult feat to deliver all of one’s lines with only vowels, but Seiter did so, and to great comic effect.
Director L. L. West maneuvered the actors through this farce with skill. I felt, though, that the humor could have been more intense if the pacing were tighter, particularly in the second act when everyone is chasing from one room to another. The cast is very talented and handle the comedy well. The overall direction is a bit stylized and it took me a few moments to get into it. Part of this stylization was that the characters were played fairly broad. The comedy would have been served better if the characters were portrayed more realistically, “real people in unusual situations…” Having stated that, however, I liked the moments where the actors broke the fourth wall and interacted with the audience. They used this device to great effect during the act two shift back to the house, although having Tournel do it did seem a little out of character.
Set designer Thomas George has fashioned an amazingly versatile set that transformed easily from the Chandebise home to the Frisky Puss Hotel, providing for the door-slamming farce that follows. Lighting designer Ethan Olsen adds some wonderful touches through an ongoing lighting gag creating a “vignette” effect for certain flights of fancy by the characters. It was very effective. High marks must also go to Valerie Nishiguchi for the lovely costume design. They were all beautifully constructed and fit the period setting of the play. All told it was a fun evening. I do recommend this play with some mild reservations. The opening night was well-attended and if that is any indication, you should get your tickets soon.