The First Rock Opera 

CenterREP's Marriage of Figaro is all schemes and pratfalls.

At CenterREP, the scenery trembles in fear for its life when Andrew Hurteau takes the stage. In the recent Laughter on the 23rd Floor, he punched several holes in the set. In the current giddy Marriage of Figaro, he just chews on it — literally — taking off a furry purple hunk in his mouth. But then that's the kind of show this is — a take-no-prisoners farce that cheerfully skewers the law, the nobility, and the battle of the sexes. And while it doesn't seem particularly daring now, it hit prerevolutionary Paris like a Molotov cocktail with its message that the commoner could be just as smart, confident, and deserving as the noble. Then, it was considered so dangerous that it was banned for years. Now, especially in this ebulliently colored version, it's a froth of schemes and pratfalls.

There's some question about whether a sexual droit du seigneur really existed. Often conflated with the earlier Latin jus primae noctis, the idea was that the lord of an estate had the right to sleep with any woman of the estate on her wedding night. The Scottish king Evenus III is quoted as decreeing that "the lord of the ground shall have the maidenhead of all virgins dwelling on the same." Which would be pretty icky, if Evenus had existed. But he didn't. And many of the other references to this alleged right don't pan out. But it makes a jolly good plot point for France's Caron de Beaumarchais, who needed a way to bring back the characters from his first successful comedy The Barber of Seville, which of course we all know in either the Mozart or Bugs Bunny version.

Figaro picks up three years after Barber's last scene. Figaro, the wily barber, has rejoined Count Almaviva's household as chief steward. The count, so noble and single-minded in the first play, has grown weary of his wife Rosine's devotion and sets his sights on her chambermaid Suzanne, Figaro's fiancée — so much so that he's considering reinstating his droit de seigneur, which he'd abolished upon his wedding as proof of his love for Rosine. Figaro and Suzanne have to figure out how to make it to their marriage bed with her honor intact, but the count has other plans.

Spelled out like that, Figaro doesn't seem much of a story, especially compared to Barber, where Figaro and the count colluded to get the lovely Rosine away from her guardian, the creepy physician Bartholo. But the count can't just be foiled; he has to be humiliated, and that's complicated. Also, there are more subplots to this one — Marceline's court case against Figaro, the relationship between she and Bartholo, Count Almaviva trying to rid himself of the sex-crazed adolescent page Cherubin. Did I mention cross-dressing? A classic bed trick? And then a thousand-word soliloquy late in the second half where Figaro talks about his itinerant past of writing and womanizing?

Watchmaker, inventor, musician, writer, businessman, spy, arms dealer to the American Revolution: If he lived today, Beaumarchais would probably have his mother's friends wondering when he was going to pick something and stick with it. He made several fortunes and lost them while bouncing in and out of both jail and royal favor. But it was just this versatility that makes Barber and Marriage so appealing. Figaro is a thinly veiled version of the playwright himself, a common man who makes good through cleverness and charm. Director Michael Butler uses Ranjit Bolt's lively translation.

Butler has assembled a yummy cast, from the hyperactive clutch of blindingly costumed dancing girls to the bickering Richard James and Pat Parker. Local favorite Kerri Shawn, who needs only set foot on a Walnut Creek stage to garner applause, is the goofy Judge Brid'oisin. Cassie Beck's Countess Almaviva is an entirely different creature from the Belly she recently played in Crowded Fire's We Are Not These Hands; here she is both regal and innocent. Craig Marker plays the title character pretty straight. His Figaro and Jessa Berkner's Suzanne are probably the only two people on the whole Almaviva estate who aren't complete loons. While he's allegedly the big schemer, she keeps outmaneuvering him.

The subplots provide much of the play's silliness. Kate Del Castillo's Fanchette totally steals her moment with an unearthly giggle. Lizzie Calogero is cast in a trousers role as Cherubin, and is adorable as the sex-crazed scamp who has written a love song to anyone.

Kate Boyd's set is an '80s acid trip, all fake fur in purple and tiger stripe and feathers everywhere, yet surprisingly clean-lined — perhaps to leave more room for people fainting, hiding behind the furniture, and jumping out of windows. But if the set is garish, it pales next to the costumes, especially Suzanne's architecturally questionable wedding dress and the get-ups on the dancing girls. It's all part of what feels like a rock opera dying to happen, from what might be the Rowland S. Howard version of Billy Idol's "White Wedding" to the way the fake orchestral warm-up music morphs into something more electric. As does the play itself.


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