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Volume 77, Number 18 | October 3 - 9, 2007

Villager Arts & Lifestyles / Theater

Flemish playwright no longer lost in translation

By JERRY TALLMER

There’s a crazy man — crazy with jealousy — walking the stage of the Connelly Theater on East 4th Street. His name is Bruno.
What has he got to be jealous about? Why, his sweet, innocent, gorgeous, adoring young wife, untouched by any man but him. Stella’s her name, and Bruno is obsessively convinced not only that every male in the world — that cocky young rogue who tends the goats, for instance — is just aching to jump her bones, but that maybe his adoring young wife is just aching to have them do it.

Bruno forthwith sets out to prove her infidelity by offering her fair favors to this one, that one, his best friend, his worst enemy, and then the whole village, and then the whole male population of Flanders. As the bewildered Stella pleadingly resists, he forces her into it, man by man, crowd by gathering crowd.

Not frequently, if ever, has New York played host to this bizarre comedy by the Flemish-born, Paris-based Fernand Crommelynck (1885-1970), now available for your inspection in director Paul Bargetto’s East River Commedia English-language production, through October 6 at the Connelly.

If you’ve never before heard of “The Magnificent Cuckold” (“Le cocu magnifique”) it isn’t your fault. It’s because, in Bargetto’s opinion, it has never until now had the translation it deserves. A preexisting one from 1960 he dismisses as “terrible, butchered, almost unplayable.”

The new translation employed here (with some cuts) is by East River Commedia dramaturg Ariel Melnick and retired Grand Street Books publisher Ben Sonnenberg, working from the original French.

“Le cocu magnifique,” Crommelynck’s chef d’oeuvre, completed 1920, received a famous Moscow Art Theatre production in 1922, staged in “biomechanical,” constructivist style by the even more famous Vsevolod Meyerhold, a deplorer of “Socialist realism” who would two decades later be framed for the murder of his wife and executed by firing squad during the purges in Stalin’s 1940 Soviet Union.

The nearest “Le cocu” ever got to New York before this, Bargetto believes, is when it was done some years ago up at Yale.

“They tried to duplicate Meyerhold. I don’t like the idea. Meyerhold’s was a pretty revolutionary production. It overwhelmed the play. No one ever heard of Crommelynck. Everyone has heard of Meyerhold.” It was in fact Bargetto’s own study of Meyerhold that led him to “The Magnificent Cuckold.”

He speaks freely of “the incredible mania” of Bruno and the whole play — “exhausting to watch and to perform, yet catching the psychosis of the time, 1920, when the world was just coming out of the greatest apocalypse [World War I] anyone had ever seen. There’d also been the worldwide [genocidal] flu pandemic of 1918. And, with the coming of women’s suffrage to the United States, an extra current — terror of women.”

Director Bargetto sees it as “a very carnal play, an overwhelming geyser of sexuality that violates the rules,” and, though “incredibly homoerotic” — Bruno’s between-the-lines feelings toward the men he’s pushing on Stella — is being staged here as neither homosexual or heterosexual. Just maniacal.

Its most interesting character is neither Bruno nor Stella or any of her potential bedmates. It’s Bruno’s all-but-silent manservant, a long-suffering fellow named Estrugo. The more Bruno raves, the more Estrugo shrugs, signals, tries to answer, can’t get a word in, shuts up.

If, as Paul Bargetto believes, Crommelynck follows in the foot-tracks of Moliere, Ibsen, Strindberg, then Estrugo prefigures the arrival of Lucky, Pozzo’s all-but-mute slave, in “Waiting for Godot.” And requires as great an actor.

Listen:

BRUNO: (glumly): Estrugo, sit down there. No, over here, come closer.Shh! Wait, Shh! Shh! Shut up! Will you shut up! (Silence … ) Tell me, do you think Stella is faithful to me? (Dry laugh.) Ah! Ah! What a question! Yes, answer me straight! Faithful or not faithful, yes or no? Why do I ask this … (Estrugo has no chance to answer. His gestures are suspended. Bruno answers for him.) She’s as faithful as the sky is blue. Today! As the earth turns … Yes! No comparisons, if you please. Answer yes or no. Faithful? Prove it … Ah! I’ve got you there! You can’t prove it. Liar! You’d swear she was? Swear. You don’t dare!
 
And so on and so forth, into the nuthouse. Our nut house, not Bruno’s.

“Yes, it’s repetitive,” says Bargetto, “but there’s a power in that repetition, not on the page but in the playing. Gets to the heart of this mania. And the silent character, Estrugo, who’s always there. It’s a great role.’”

Tuomas Hiltunen plays him at the Connelly. Morgan Lynch is Stella. Troy Lavallee is Bruno.

Paul Bargetto was born June 26, 1969, in San Jose, California; grew up in the tiny community of Chemeketa Park, California. His father’s a theater director and high-school drama teacher, his mother’s a retired librarian.

A graduate of San Francisco State University, Bargetto came to New York in the 1990s, spent four years “in the school of hard knocks on the Lower East Side,” then went to Columbia for his MFA, and with that in hand, “of course went right back to school’’ on the Lower East Side.

Sounds a little like Lucky right there.

He describes his social life as “a rotating circle of roommates — nothing to write home about.” Nor, one trusts, to get insanely jealous about. You know what they say about women and streetcars — or men and subway trains. There’s always another one coming along.

THE MAGNIFICENT CUCKOLD (Le cocu magnifique). By Fernand Crommelynck. Directed by Paul Bargetto. An East River Commedia production through October 6 at the Connelly Theater, 229 East 4th Street, (212) 982-3995, or www.ovationtix.com.

Community board calendar Oct. 3-11


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