Sunday, January 16, 2011

And Tartuffe?

Americans don't really do farce. We do great satire, but I think we take ourselves a little too seriously when it comes to comedy. At the end of the day, even the stupidest sitcom has one or two moments where the characters turn into real people, have a heart-to-heart, and remind the audience that for all their crazy schemes and outrageous situations, they're just like us: flawed, but fundamentally human.

Farce, on the other hand, is basically a live-action cartoon, and relies on unrealistic, somewhat one-dimensional characters who are just too stupid or greedy or awkward to generate sympathy. Farce lacks self-awareness and sentimentality. "Seinfeld" and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" are the only two American TV shows that I can think of off-hand that could be called farces, because the characters don't invite empathy or even feint toward personal growth and development. They aren't humans, they're caricatures.

I happen to love farce. I feel that outside of a really good sitcom like "Roseanne" or "Community," sentimentality in comedy is unearned and unwelcome. It always feels like it was thrown in at the last minute because logic dictates that 1) comedy makes you laugh, so 2) comedy makes you happy, so 3) comedies must therefore have happy endings for the characters (hence the old writer's expression, comedies end in weddings, tragedies end in funerals). It's sound logic if you're a good person, but I'm actually kind of a bastard and I like to laugh at the stupidity and suffering of those hapless on-screen idiots.

One of my favorite purveyors of farce--besides most of the comedy lineup of the BBC--is Moliere (real name Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, 1622 - 1673), a Frenchman who Wikipedia calls "one of greatest masters of comedy in Western literature," so you know it must be true. Last night, a friend took me to see an off-off Broadway production of Moliere's "Tartuffe," presented by the Workshop Theater Company, and a grand time was had by all.

"Tartuffe" is about a con artist who pretends to be a devote religious man in order to worm his way into the household of an aristocratic gentleman. The gentleman thinks the sun rises and sets out of Tartuffe's ass, but everyone else in the house knows the man is a hypocrite and a fraud. They just can't convince the master of the house to see the truth, and Tartuffe's influence is wrecking everyone's life. Will the gentleman force his daughter to marry Tartuffe? Will Tartuffe succeed in seducing the gentleman's comely wife? Will that sassy servant ever shut up? Are they really going to do this whole thing in rhyme?

The cool thing about a Moliere production is that even the English translations of his works can be set to rhyme. If you have actors that can commit themselves to what basically amounts to bawdy Dr. Seuss dialogue, the whole thing really pops. In college, I saw a production of Moliere's "The Miser" that wasn't in rhyme, and it was good. But the surreality that's the bedrock of a good farce gets a chance to shine when the characters speak in rhyme. See what I did there?

And here's a tip for the out-of-towners. Off-off Broadway shows are surprisingly affordable, less than $20 a seat, with professional actors and everything. I highly recommend going to an off-off Broadway show rather than a Broadway show if you're coming to visit me. The terms "Broadway," "off-Broadway," and "off-off Broadway" just refer to the number of seats in the theater, not to the location of the theater itself. You can see an off-off Broadway play without leaving the safe and shiny tourist ghetto.

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