Theatre de la Jeune Lune's audacious Figaro shakes up a classic

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It's 1792 and the Terror reigns in Paris, the euphoric overthrow of the old regime in the name of universal brotherhood having given way to a fiesta of bloodletting and fear. Hiding out from the revolutionary mob, just a stone's throw from the Bastille, a weathered aristocrat, Count Almaviva (Dominique Serrand), and his reluctantly loyal and much put-upon servant Fig (Steven Epp) carp and cavil and niggle at each other, poking old wounds and replaying the past. In Theatre de la Jeune Lune's West Coast premiere of Figaro (adapted by Serrand and Epp), this adds up to an extremely agile blending of Mozart, Pierre Beaumarchais' three Figaro plays, a bit of real-life biography (that old aristo holed up in a half-empty mansion resembling Beaumarchais himself), and something more besides that verges on poignant modernist doubt.

Berkeley Repertory's massive Roda stage, left largely bare, provides ample scope for Jeune Lune's audacious production, which includes operatic performances by a talented 10-member cast, the 7th Avenue String Quartet in the pit (conducted by pianist Jason Sherbundy), and actor-director Serrand's wall-size video designs, which alternately cast the impression of once-lavish, now destitute surroundings and channel a live feed for some extreme and affecting closeups. The Minneapolis-based company (last here in 2006 with a memorable production of The Miser) proves adept at keeping several theatrical balls in the air, not least the music (Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro being well served), commedia dell'arte–inflected physical comedy (a representative gesture of Serrand's Almaviva is a half-squat, with hands jutting back directing an unseen servant and chair assward), and several narrative lines looping through a series of flashbacks.

The central relationship between master and servant carries the most charge, as well as humor — Epp's Fig is a hilariously affronted and rather naïve exponent of newfound democratic values. (Boasting of the newborn United States, he says: "They have a president, not a king who sits on the throne just because his daddy did. His name is George, um ... something with a W.") Serrand's marvelous Almaviva, meanwhile, is as astute in his political cynicism as he is childish in his pampered sense of entitlement. But the ingenious text soon loses the thread of their rich relationship among the several narrative strands that necessarily enter from the wistfully, painfully recollected past. For all the success of Figaro's ambitious and expert mix — and the transporting music, dynamic staging, and expert performances — something is sacrificed in not pursuing the crucial relationship between the Count and Fig more rigorously.

Clearly something more than Beaumarchais or Mozart is at stake. Epp's multifaceted text seems to include, among other things, a sidelong glance at Samuel Beckett. Fig (a Beckett-like moniker for sure) and the Count, despite the weight of their shared history, sound thoroughly modern. Locked in a terrible if comical reciprocal bind, master and servant here lend the play an enticingly far-reaching metaphor. Just behind the obligatory if piquant jabs at Bush and Iraq, a larger theme looms, suggesting the limits and contradictions of modern liberal democracy itself. Those great booming flashes of cannon fire that finally punctuate the action seem to simultaneously signal a new order and an apocalypse, as if, there at the inception of the modern, the Revolution has revealed itself as both a cradle and grave in one.


Through June 8

Tues and Fri–Sat, 8 p.m. (also Thurs and Sat, 2 p.m.)

Wed and Sun, 7 p.m.

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