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A Blessed Relief

October 4, 2010

scapin.jpegAs a theatre critic, I generally have a policy that if I find myself feeling negative about the work of a single company over several shows, I'll give seeing productions by that company a break and then go back and check another show out after some time has elapsed. This helps to "reset the clock" so to speak. There's no point in harping on over and over again about how terrible one organization's work is. That gets dispiriting and discouraging for readers and writer alike. It tends to annoy the artists too. 

In the case of the American Conservatory Theatre, I've kept going to shows, even though I've mostly been disappointed. The reason for this is that the company is the Bay Area's flagship theatre organization and therefore deserves to be be under closer scrutiny than other organizations in the region.

So it was with some trepidation that I took myself off to see Scapin at ACT over the weekend. Directed, co-adapted and starring Bill Irwin, I guessed that the production had to have some merit to it.

But given ACT's reputation for hashing up the output of artists who otherwise are known for making terrific work (e.g. the ill-advised Tosca Project collaboration with the San Francisco Ballet and John Doyle's tiresome production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle) I wasn't convinced that even the brilliant Bill Irwin could escape the clutches of the Geary Stage unscathed.

But the mercurial theatre artistic managed extremely well, pulling off a show that is as slick and smart as the title character of Moliere's comedy.

The best thing about ACT's Scapin is how Irwin improves the game of all of ACT's actors. Every single member of the cast (bar one, who is in a small role that isn't well-suited for her) acted better than I have ever seen them act. Who knew that Jud Williford was such a consummate clown? He is so funny and physically lithe in the role of Scapin's sidekick Sylvestre that he almost steals the limelight from Irwin himself. The production made me truly understand what a terrific actor Williford is.

The strong sense of ensemble, the Vaudeville-inspired physical poetry of the piece, the ribald sense of humor, the salty-smart adaptation and the witty piano and drum live musical score made for the most engaging home-grown evening I have spent to date at the Geary Theatre. This Scapin is even on a par with some of the captivating imports that ACT has brought in in recent years such as CanStage's The Overcoat and Kneehigh Theatre's Brief Encounter. Let's hope that more ACT-generated shows can match the strength of Scapin in future.

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