According to Hoyle 

For Better or Worse is an act too short.

In case anyone needed reminding, Geoff Hoyle is a very, very funny man. Here in the Bay Area, we've enjoyed him as a member of the Pickle Family Circus, a solo performer doing his own pieces such as Feast of Fools and The First Hundred Years, and buoying up the casts of Berkeley Rep's Green Bird and Rhinoceros, and The Alchemist. When he isn't with us, he has been creating the role of Zazu in the Broadway production of The Lion King, performing all over Europe and the former Soviet Union, and visiting Latvian circuses. To call him a clown is to understate the case; he's more like a force of farce.

So it's natural that he decided to take on Georges Feydeau, heavyweight French farceur and inspiration to Theater of the Absurd thinkers Ionesco and Beckett. Although Feydeau is best known for the full-length play A Flea in Her Ear, Hoyle was fascinated by five works from late in the author's life, the one-act "bedroom farces," written when Feydeau's marriage was splintering. But Hoyle couldn't find exactly what he wanted, so he took two of the one-acts, did a new translation, and has put them together at the Berkeley Rep as For Better or Worse, a slapsticky examination of the perils of family life that would ring true in any era set in France just before the Great War.

The evening begins with Eugène Ionesco professor of philology and semantics Barrington Regent (Hoyle) taking the stage and expounding on the history of French farce. Hoyle disappears and returns as Bastien Follavoine with Sharon Lockwood as wife Julie, and so begins "Julie is Early," the story of Julie's pregnancy with their son. ("His name is Toto. It's short for Achilles.") Hoyle, who apparently isn't required to follow the same laws of gravity as everyone else, does all sorts of silly and amazing things -- crabwalks in perfect step behind Julie, wears a chamber pot on his head while doing a chicken dance, and so forth. Meanwhile Lockwood heaves herself from one side of the stage to the other and makes increasingly shriller demands ("Squeeze my hands! Make it hurt! Stop, you're hurting me!") in a voice and tone immediately recognizable to anyone who has been around a woman who could go into labor at the drop of a chamber pot.

And that's it, really. Julie's mother shows up in a hat that features not only bird plumes but a whole bird, things get sillier, and then it's over, and there's a long audience participation bit where Hoyle-as-Regent illustrates a theatrical concept by leading three hapless voluteers through a little skit that involves suggested nudity and a slamming door.

In the second act, set eight years later, Toto (an excellent, mischievous Austin Greene) is a willful child who won't take his laxative water, Julie won't change into appropriate clothes for a fancy lunch, and Jarion Monroe (who was so wonderful as the prissy Jean opposite Hoyle's rumpled Berenger in Rhinoceros) shows up as another prissy character, this time doing a truly impressive spit take. Amy Resnick, who usually plays very serious characters, is a fizzy delight here as the maid Rose, with a burbling accent and a hopping half-curtsy.

The result is charming, although a bit thin. The material is funny -- Feydeau created intricately wacky situations that beg to be overplayed in exactly the way Hoyle and Lockwood do. The running around, Bastien's bit with a chair that he's trying to get under his hugely pregnant wife, some ill-fated spaghetti and several equally doomed "unbreakable" chamber pots -- it's all good and difficult stuff, and the cast nails it. Feydeau's wordplay only improves with Hoyle's translation (Hoyle has substituted the Hebrides for the Aleutians in a bit that draws its humor from people trying to spell phonetically), and the deeper messages about the difficulties of love and marriage are sharp and clear. It's as if, however, there's a piece missing. It's all adorable and saucy, but it could really use a third act, or a little more of a plot. Or maybe this recipe just needs a little more Hoyle.


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