Lincoln Center Festival 2016
Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord
Gerald W. Lynch Theater
New York, New York

July 20, 2016
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme

— by Jerry Hochman

Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme was a hit in its initial run in 17th century Paris. It’s a hit again.

A presentation of the 2016 Lincoln Center Festival, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord’s 2012 staging arrived on Wednesday at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, a hop, skip and jump from the Lincoln Center campus. It’s an effervescent production that spares no comic expense, overflows with dry (and not so dry) wit, and is as bright and sparkly as French champagne.

As was the case with Kanze Noh’s Lincoln Center Festival program the previous week, where I anticipated that I might find a connection between Noh and ballet, here I expected to learn something about ballet history by getting a peak at the same “comedie-ballet” production that Louis XIV saw and reportedly greatly admired at its premiere in 1670. In particular, I hoped to glean something of the original choreography for this production – the choreographer was Pierre Beauchamp, the composer was Jean-Baptiste Lully, and together they laid the foundation for ballet as we know it today. Lully’s close relationship with the Sun King is well known – Lully danced with him in Ballet de la Nuit, composed vocals and music for court ballets in which Louis danced, and became music master to the royal family. Beauchamp, who gave dance lessons to Louis XIV for over 22 years, was principal choreographer to Molière’s acting company (the Troupe du Roi) during 1664-1673, was made director of the Académie Royale de Danse in 1671, and is credited with codifying the five positions of the feet in classical ballet.

But I quickly ascertained that the choreography in this production, as well as its staging, are not original. The words are Molière’s, and Lully’s music is used (supplemented with excerpts from other contemporary compositions). Other than that, the production is an ‘update’ – which demonstrates how quality contemporary sensibility grafted onto a 17th century form can make the piece work for today’s audiences. Indeed, in a lot of ways the staging of this production makes it appear spiritually closer, aside from the costumes, to contemporary farce productions (e.g., Michael Frayne’s Noises Off) than to what I suspect was the slower pace of the original. Kudos to Director Denis Podalydès, Music Director Christophe Coin, and their artistic collaborators.

However, if there’s an artistic ingredient that appears to be less well conceived than others it is the dance segments. Apparently, Beauchamp’s original choreography has been lost. (Indeed, unlike Lully, who is credited with the music, Beauchamp is not referenced at all.) What has replaced the original resembles nothing I’ve seen from the period (which may have been a conscious choice). The choreography is attributed solely to Kaori Ito, a Japanese-born and Paris-based choreographer with a background in ballet, but whose more recent activity appears to be more aligned with contemporary dance. Since I’ve not previously seen her work, I can’t be certain. Regardless, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not likely to have been this way in the original production. I doubt very much, for example, that Beauchamp choreographed dancers doing floor work, or percolating like jackrabbits, or standing preparing to give lessons and demonstrate ballet with their feet parallel rather than turned out.

But the dancing portion of this production (aside from what is part of the staging) is relatively insignificant. Indeed, the three dancers roles seem subsidiary, very much like background corps dancers in a Broadway musical – which may have been their function in the original as well. And although the choreography is not an authentic reproduction of the original, I suspect that in many ways it’s better suited for the staging that Podalydès has created, and it’s the staging, as well as the performances, that make this production as good as it is. From the opening moments, the pace rarely slows. Everything about the staging is interesting – from the opening view of Monsieur Jourdain overseeing the preparation for the music and dance part of his ‘education’ (literally overseeing, from his second floor balcony), to the hilarious “parade of nations” and Turkish ceremony at which he ‘becomes’ the aristocrat he worked so hard to become, except the position he acquires is as imaginary as his acquisition of the status of a ‘gentleman’ in French society, and as meaningless as his calculated exposure to the arts.

Molière’s sarcasm and wit are not reserved for the man who would be a gentleman. He also satirizes the arts that pander to the bourgeoisie, of which Monsieur Jourdain is an eccentric and extreme example, in order to make money – a situation that persists to this day. And he also targets his comedic ire to please his patron. The creation of the absurd (and fictional) son of the Turkish sultan and the even more farcical Turkish ceremonies at which Monsieur Jourdain is awarded the fictitious title “Mamamouchi” was a direct response to a slight Louis XIV suffered a year earlier at the hands of the real Turkish ambassador. (Of course, fascination with the Ottoman Empire, and attempts to belittle the perceived pomposity and eccentricity of its rulers, did not end with Louis XIV. See, e.g., Le Corsaire.)

As the haughty and put-upon Master of the Dance, Thibault Vincon (who also played Jourdain’s daughter Lucille’s love interest, Cléonte), in his 17th century costume and wig (the costumes were by haute couture designer Christian Lacroix; wigs by Veronique Soulier-Nguyen), looked remarkably like images I’ve seen of Beauchamp. The equally snooty but more malleable (for money) Master of the Music, played by Julien Campani, was also strongly portrayed – and, with his wig and costume, he resembled images of Lully. And Monsieur Jourdain’s wife, played by Isabelle Candelier, was wonderful as a 17th century French version of the long-suffering Alice Kramden (Audrey Meadows, in the original television sitcom The Honeymooners, opposite Jackie Gleason, who might have made an interesting Monsieur Jourdain).

While they all do extraordinarily fine work, the production belongs to those best able to deliver the nealy over-the-top comedy. Manon Combes, who plays Jourdain’s maid Nicole, is at once intelligent, randy, and consistently hilarious. As Covielle, Cléonte’s valet (and Nicole’s paramour), Alexandre Steiger nearly steals the performance. Wrapped in a garment that allows only a portion of his head to stick out at any one time, and traversing the stage primarily on his knees, Steiger looks somewhat like Aya (Gamzatti’s somewhat sinister servant in La Bayadere) if Aya had been played by Groucho Marx and her role had morphed into low comedy. His performance is utterly amazing. But the glue that holds the play together is Pascal Rénéric’s Monsieur Jourdain (the role originally played by Molière himself). From his first appearance to his last, Rénéric’s character is a buffoon, but a likeable one, trying his best to be better than he is, and ultimately succeeding because he was too obtuse to know he’d failed.

I only had one minor complaint – and one not directly associated with the production: the positioning of the supertitles on a thin screen above the stage. From my vantage point, which was fairly central, I could not look at the translation above the stage, and the action on the stage, at the same time. It would have been better had they been placed on one or both sides of the stage.

Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord was co-founded (actually, co-established – the theater as built in 1876, went into disrepair and then was reclaimed in 1974) by the esteemed English theater director Peter Brook. I remember to this day Brook’s remarkable Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Nights Dream, which I saw at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the early 1970s – it was a landmark in stagecraft that I remember vividly to this day. Brook’s affiliation ended in 2008, but the spirit that he bought to his direction lives on in this production. Except for a slight amount of tedium as Act I wound down to intermission (it’s very long), I loved every second of it.

Performances continue through Sunday at the Lynch Theater, which is housed at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Holding it there is not inappropriate. It’s criminal to miss this production.