That Geoff Hoyle is coming back to Berkeley Rep is always good news. A local favorite since his clowning days in the early Pickle Family Circus, Hoyle has been a mainstay of the Rep stage in original creations such as Geni(us) and The First 100 Years as well as ensemble pieces including Ionesco's Rhinoceros and Jonson's The Alchemist. But what Hoyle has brought this time is a new wrinkle -- his debut as a translator.
To make For Better or Worse, opening next Wednesday at the Rep after an initial run at Arizona Theatre Company, the 58-year-old British expat adapted two of French playwright Georges Feydeau's five one-act "conjugal farces," Leonie's Early (1911) and Purging the Baby (1910), into a single play. The two made for a natural pairing, both about battling couples, parenthood, and chamber pots. In the first, the dignified husband must don a potty hat to placate his howlingly pregnant wife (Sharon Lockwood), and in the second he is trying to market unbreakable latrines to the army while being pestered about his son's constipation.
Written late in Feydeau's career when the playwright's marriage had fallen apart, the five conjugal farces offer a dark view of married life, a far cry from Elizabethan comedies that always end with weddings. "Unlike most door-slammer farces, the doors slam only once or twice in these particular plays," Hoyle says. "It usually means it's the end of the road." Feydeau's take on marriage may be a cynical one, but it may also be far less damaging than the happily-ever-after myth we're force-fed from fairy tales and rom-coms. When we're conditioned to expect rainbows, daffodils, and nonstop sexcapades, it's no wonder divorce rates are so high. Himself a husband of thirty-odd years and father of three, Hoyle emphasizes that conflict is inherent in long-term relationships. "It's been reported to me that people in the audience sitting next to their spouses say, 'You're like that,' and five lines later the other spouse says, 'You know, you're like that,'" Hoyle says. "No one actually 'fesses up to the fact that there's so much difficulty in maintaining a marriage relationship. It requires so much work."
Purging the Baby is the second most performed Feydeau play, after Flea in Her Ear, but that doesn't translate to much stateside familiarity. Hoyle felt part of the problem was the translations themselves, so he undertook to navigate the puns and courtly wordplay himself. Fluent in French, Hoyle lived in Paris for two years in the '60s, studying with Etienne Decroux, Marcel Marceau's mime teacher. He also speaks Russian, Italian, and German. "If I were to go back and do it all again, I probably would study Romance languages and theater, or Romance languages and history," Hoyle says. "Maybe I would never be on the boards at all." That would be a huge loss for audiences, as few have a better sense of comic timing than Hoyle, who says the exacting timing of Feydeau's farces is a challenge. "I liken it to plate-spinning while tap-dancing on the head of a pin," he says. "And you have to play it realistically. If you play it comically, you're sunk."
The play runs through April 24; for details and tickets, visit BerkeleyRep.org