- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

The Sunday matinee of “Scaramouche” last weekend played host to a birthday party for an energetic group of what appeared to be 10-year-olds. Replying to a remark that a three-hour play about the French Revolution is an interesting choice for pre-adolescents, one of the adults said, “Well, we heard there was sword-fighting in this play, and the kids loved the swordplay in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’”

Youngsters and adults expecting wall-to-wall swashbuckling and melodrama will probably be disappointed and bored by the philosophical and reflective “Scaramouche,” directed with terribly great gravity by Gregg Henry. But, if you like your history served up with splashes of dramatic flair and performed by a vivid troupe of actors, then Barbara Field’s diligent adaptation of Rafael Sabatini’s novel will undoubtedly appeal.

Set during the French Revolution, this passionate play about hypocrisy, political machinations, societal constraints and the paramount importance of speaking the truth gets off to a slow, speechy start. The cast, clad in modern dress, reads aloud stirring quotes about liberty and revolution from literary and political immortals such as Victor Hugo, Voltaire, and Thomas Jefferson. That stately, slightly gloomy air that permeates many a PBS documentary lingers well into the first act of “Scaramouche.” You wonder if the play is ever going to get started.

The hero in this picaresque tale is Andre-Louis Moreau (Hugh T. Owen), a child of mysterious parentage raised by his wealthy godfather, Kerkadiou (Joe Mancuso), in the French countryside. Educated in Paris as a lawyer, he is prepared for idleness until the unfair death of his best friend thrusts him into a life of political and social upheaval. He goes from lawyer to outlaw to actor before making his way to Paris, where he becomes a fencing master and gets swept up in the revolution.

Along the way, Andre searches for meaning, as he quickly realizes that a life bent on revenge is cold and soulless. For a man Mr. Sabatini describes as being “born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad,” Andre is awfully petulant and grim.

Although Mr. Owen is an actor of formidable gifts, Andre remains a cipher, a humorless man who lets life happen to him and gives scant insight into what he is thinking and feeling.

As a result, “Scaramouche” is about as exciting as a historical tableau vivant, and the audience, like Andre, are observers more than participants. However, many of the play’s goodies have been stored up for those who have the stamina to stay with “Scaramouche” through the second act, after Andre travels to Paris.

Everything is heightened — the language, the emotions, the set pieces — and you wish that there was more of this electricity and sense of danger all the way through. Mr. Henry has staged some compelling scenes, most notably fencing students practicing their formal moves, and a recurring image of the slain aristocrats being embraced by the mob as if collapsing into the arms of lovers.

But these glimpses of what “Scaramouche” could be are not enough to salvage the production. The scenes with the commedia dell’arte troupe are embarrassingly unfunny, despite the actors, notably Grady Weatherford as the player Rhodomont, doing everything but hauling out the whoopie cushion and the clown shoes to make it work.

The large cast wavers between good (Meg Taintor as Andre’s good-hearted, but naive, cousin Aline; Jenifer Deal as the fiery, manipulative actress Climene) and amateurish.

The work is further weighted down by Miss Field’s pedantic adaptation, which contains a frankly drippy ending where Martin Luther King is solemnly evoked.

Where is the dash, the derring-do, the sense of Andre as this experience junkie who rushes from one adrenaline high to another before discovering a higher, unifying purpose? Instead, we get a “Scaramouche” that lacks romance and fiery passion.

**1/2

WHAT: “Scaramouche,” adapted by Barbara Field, based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini

WHERE: Washington Shakespeare Company, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 25

TICKETS: $22 to $30

PHONE: 703/418-4808

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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