Molière's Le Bourgeois gentilhomme was first presented to the Sun King, Louis XIV, in October 1670. It was a play and a ballet (a comédie-ballet) that constituted, at the time, extremely sharp social commentary. The story is set in the home of Mr. Jourdain, born poor but now a member of the bourgeois thanks to his father's success as a cloth merchant. Jourdain's one wish in life is to rise above the ranks of the bourgeois — those petty strivers and nouveau riche — and become a proper member of the aristocracy. Into his home streams a parade of teachers and flattery-peddlers he has hired to groom him and provide him with proper gentlemanly airs. Their attempts fail. Time and again, Mr. Jourdain's uncultured behavior reveals the stamp of his lowly origins, and he spends the play looking ridiculous. Taste, we learn, is something you cannot buy.
Three hundred forty years later, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme still feels like sharp social commentary, but when pulled from the context of 1670s France, its exact targets become difficult to parse. Is petty striving the object of contempt? Or the unsatisfied middle class?
These questions are extra-interesting when considering Viva Bourgeois, a new adaptation of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme by Paul Tei of Mad Cat Theatre. In Tei's re-imagining, the targets could also be crackers, Southerners, or ugly Americans. Or — and this is the most dangerous possibility — Elvis Presley.
Viva Bourgeois: Written by Molire. Adapted and directed by Paul Tei. With Erik Fabregat, Erin Joy Schmidt, Joe Kimble, Yvonne Azurdia, Troy Davidson, Matthew Chapman, George Schiavone, Caitlin Geier, Betsy Graver, and Tracey Barrow-Schoenblatt. Through August 22. Mad Cat Theatre Company at the Light Box, 3000 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets cost $30. 305-576-6377; madcattheatre.org
For this is now a play about Elvis, the soul-cracker of Beale Street who would one day himself be compared to the Sun King. The idea is so obvious, so perfect, that Tei must have giggled like mad when it first occurred to him. Of course! Mr. Jourdain is Elvis! What other rich man spent so many years so deeply resentful of the gentry's refusal to accept him as one of its own? Who spent more money trying to become worldly?
Nobody. So Viva is set in Graceland instead of the French countryside. The year is 1971, and the parade of teachers and flattery-peddlers wandering through the King's abode now includes a martial arts master rather than a fencing master. (Remember how Big Elvis loved his karate? And how he used to interpolate karate moves into his stage show to demonstrate — what, exactly? Toughness? As though his truck-driver cred and alley-cat yowl weren't enough?)
That the Mr. Jourdain/Elvis transubstantiation is an inspired twist is demonstrated by the ease with which all of Molière's other ideas slide into Elvis's living room. There is a moment, in both the original and in Tei's adaptation, when a hired philosophy teacher is reduced to instructing Jourdain/Elvis on the basics of spoken language. In both plays, Jourdain/Elvis is stunned to learn that language is broken down into "prose" and "verse" and that he has been speaking in "prose" all of his life without knowing it.
It's a funny thing to see in both plays, but only when it's Elvis making the discovery may we place the moment that follows in meaningful context. Elvis, sick of hearing his wife telling him how ridiculous he is, asks her: "What's that? What'm ah speaking, raht now?"
"Garbage," she says, lovingly.
He counters triumphantly — "Prose!" — and slaps his armrest, delighted. That's Elvis as we understood him in our tenderer moments: proud, good-natured, game, and goofy.
Playing Mr. Jourdain/Elvis is Eric Fabregat — a good-natured, game, and goofy actor who is also the only South Florida thesp who could have done this role any justice. Looking a little more like Roy Orbison than Elvis, he nevertheless nails it. Every Elvis you could want is present and accounted for in Fabregat's performance — the aw shucks charmer, the bungler, the drug addict, the rock star, and the egomaniac, as well as the charismatic monster who could dominate a room with the thrust of a shoulder, the shivering of a hand, or a wink. Most marvelously, Fabregat sings like Elvis, at least at the beginning of the play. (His throat tires out later on, and he begins to sing like Erik Fabregat.)
Fabregat is surrounded by the largest cast Mad Cat has ever assembled, most of whom do their jobs adequately and a few of whom somehow steal the stage from Big Elvis for a moment or two. First among equals is Erin Joy Schmidt, playing Mrs. Jourdain/Priscilla Presley, who brings both down-home country sass and even-headedness to the chaotic Graceland, where she's beginning to feel less and less at home. Notable too are Caitlin Geier's bubbly, lusty incarnation of Mr. Jourdain's daughter, Lucille, and Troy Davidson's performance as Leon, Lucille's dancing, singing suitor. It'd be wrong to say too much about that dashing young fellow, for his whole performance comes as a delightful surprise. It is enough to note that later in the show, when he is forced to speak in a made-up Turkish dialect, he intones the magic words, "Mama-se, mama-sa, ma-ma-coo-sa" in a high, feathery tenor that made me a little weepy.
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Viva Bourgeois has only two significant problems, and they are related. One is Tei's over-reliance on Molière's script. Le Bourgeois gentilhomme is ultimately the story of two love affairs: one between Mr. Jourdain and a wealthy widow he wishes to seduce; the other between Lucille and her suitor (named "Cleonte" in the original). One of these must go. Together, they drag the play out and bog it down in a comedy-of-errors quagmire that feels both creaky and irrelevant.
The other problem is Viva's cruelty. Even after thinking about it for two days, I am uncertain whether Viva Bourgeois is making fun of Elvis Presley or if its targets are the forces that drove him mad — those same jealous, classist forces that would cause biographer Albert Goldman, through a haze of smug schadenfreude, to write of Elvis's loathing for his "ugly hillbilly pecker" and to refer to the King's clan as "deracinated," as though deracination were a moral failing. If Viva Bourgeois is having a go at those forces, then bravo. If, however, it is their latest manifestation, then boo. It is too easy to have a whack at Elvis, and it would be too easy for future productions of this play to turn him into a crude and unfeeling parody. When he refuses to allow his daughter to marry the self-made Leon, insisting that she marry a born gentleman instead, it is only Erik Fabregat's warm, silly acting that keeps us from hating the guy.
Thankfully, Fabregat is not going anywhere, and he'll redeem every under-workshopped second of this promising little play with his twitching hips and Kingly vibrato. There will be time enough, after this run, for Tei to excise hunks of Molière's fine but needless intrigue, leaving us a Viva Bourgeois that's a little less conversation and a little more action.