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A Mammoth Achievement

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s masterful revision of the Mozart opera “The Marriage of Figaro” is less classical redux and more the sort of performance that brings a much-needed draught of fresh air to fustian art forms that have little or nothing to do with our lives. Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s “Figaro” throbs with the vigor and beauty of its operatic antecedent, but the company, who brought down the house two years ago with their traveling masterpiece “The Miser,” adds so many subtle embellishments (all without mangling the epic gorgeousness of Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte’s beloved libretto) that the show transcends its formula quite effortlessly.

The performance, which toes a line between comedy of manners and existential meditation, is brilliantly delivered by the dramaturges of Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Director Dominique Serrand and playwright/actor Steven Epp take the stage as the narcissistic old Count Almaviva and the hapless Figaro (who goes by his fond diminutive, “Fig”), respectively. The two putty-faced actors emblematize what one has come to expect from a Jeune Lune production -- infinite bursts of energy, a physically comedic genius that completely precludes a fancy-schmancy set, the sort of interpretive brilliance that transforms each quip or gesture into a veritable symbol, and the ability to lift a potentially slapstick moment up into the realm of the sublime. “Figaro” is no different.

The play, which opened last Tuesday to much anticipation, may be riddled with slang and the kind of lowbrow audacity you just might not expect from an opera, but viewers needn’t be afflicted by the anxiety of contamination. The show is actually staggeringly faithful to scandal-mongering author Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’ Figaro comedies (“The Barber of Seville,” “The Marriage of Figaro,” and “The Guilty Mother”). The story essentially begins in the future, during the French Revolution’s nobleman-demolishing Reign of Terror, when Count Almaviva, a former aristocrat who resembles a vaudevillian jester more than a gray eminence, is saved from the guillotine by his faithful manservant Fig after streaking through the Champs-Elysses in only his powdered wig. Through a high-energy exchange of barbs about the New World and its apparent sole achievement, potatoes, it quickly becomes clear that the two have a mutually codependent relationship, one in which the Count, who decries the loss of power through a series of childish excoriations against democracy, plays the vainglorious fool to Fig’s competent, if resentful, underdog. As the two take cover from the seething masses, the opera creeps into the story in teeny bits and pieces, a duet here and an aria there.

The staging of “Figaro” is inimitable. Serrand himself designed the live-video aspect of the piece, in which images of the actors’ faces (whether contorted in a long note and conveyed in triplicate on the screen at the anterior of the stage, or captured in close-ups in moments of excruciating reflection) make us nearly oblivious to the fact that we are watching an opera. Indeed, the operatic factor itself is taken to transcendent levels. Because of the candid projections, each of the characters is lifted from the yawping melodrama of the form and removed from the shadows of the predictable. A production that may have been flat otherwise is thus transformed into a richly textured realm full of hidden motivations and unexpected desires, almost akin to a map turned landscape.

As Fig and the Count alternately decry and wax nostalgic about their past (captured in the operatic flashbacks), they become helpless bystanders in the presence of memory. Because the story revolves around the power struggle between the incorrigibly prideful Count and sad-sack Everyman Fig, their primary recollections are about thwarted love and sexual betrayal (namely, Count Almaviva’s attempt to seduce Figaro’s young wife Susanna on their wedding night 16 years ago). Sonya Berlovitz’s elegant yet unostentatious costumes, flanked by Serrand’s endlessly versatile set (predominantly realized through a moving projected backdrop that recalls the rambling sparseness of old aristocratic manors, with their cathedral ceilings and airy, antiseptic elegance), are perfect accents for the live video and the action itself. Characters tumble out from underneath beds, pop out of clunky wardrobes, and press themselves out of earshot and eyesight behind the unlikeliest of props—breaking out of the typical inertness of the original opera and getting to the visceral heart of the story, which is about concealment, deception, and the malleability of appearance. Jeune Lune’s cow-tipping brand of physical comedy is brash and volatile—particularly during the flashback sequence involving a minor contretemps in the garden, in which the multiple lovers (young Figaro and Susanna, young Count Almaviva and his beautiful wife Rosina, and Rosina’s doe-eyed admirer Cherubino) pas-de-deux around their infidelities, some real and some purposely contrived.

“Figaro” is a mammoth achievement not only because of its deft mishmash of video, opera, theatre, physical comedy, and multiple genres. The performers are, quite simply, incredible. Momoko Tanno as the young Susanna is spry and charming; Bryan Boyce’s young Figaro, while he doesn’t receive the same generous stage time as others, aptly conveys the booming, naïve imperiousness of youth; and Bradley Greenwald, who plays young Count Almaviva and who also adapted the score for the 7th Avenue String Quartet, nearly upstages the rest of them in his violent, lusty mission to consummate Figaro’s marriage in his stead. Two especially delightful performances are those of Christina Baldwin, whose liquid doe eyes and insistent soprano make her the perfect Cherubino, and Jennifer Baldwin Peden (Rosina), whose standing-ovation-eliciting mezzo soprano and aggrieved beauty imbue the otherwise comedic performance with an air of inexpressible sadness (she is, after all, the supercilious Count’s neglected wife). The only two non-singers in the performance are Epp and Serrand, who gloriously anchor “Figaro” in its larger framework of coming to terms with the ugly and sometimes exhilaratingly larger-than-life behemoth of the past.

Admittedly, despite all the chutzpah and vigor of the show, the framework of extended flashbacks and a future vantage point can sometimes unduly bog the show down in moments of clunky reflection and unclear motivation. But even given the sometimes precarious balance between past and present, the manner in which the older men ruminate over their lives amid the mayhem of the operatic sequences is absolutely riveting. The complexity of their relationship—one in which the Count is simultaneously infant and tyranny incarnate, and Fig alternates between jocular ripostes and world-weary meditations on his destiny as a common man—is brought into clear focus. The young Count Almaviva breezily says of his servants, “I don’t think they understand the meaning of privilege,” a privilege that is heavily alluded to in the older men’s relationship, which is peppered with the strange contradictions inherent in associations which boast an imbalance of power. Count Almaviva’s sense of dangerous entitlement is also mirrored in young Cherubino’s sordid end and the old man’s discovery of his wife’s past infidelities. There is a tenderness in the scenes that transcends easy farce and even the biting satire that such a piece would seem to portend. It is apt that Fig and Count Almaviva find a sad sort of solace in the past, considering that the chaos of their milieu and the possibility of inexorable change are as frightening as they are intoxicating. In the end, this extended meditation on love, longing, revolution, and privilege makes us want to scream “bon courage” at the hapless characters and await Jeune Lune’s next sojourn at the Rep.

“Figaro” plays at the Berkeley Rep through June 8.