Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Sacred Fools Theater
Through October 17
Playwright Jon Jory’s adaptation of Voltaire’s novella Candide is, to cynically paraphrase the satire’s implacable optimist, Professor Pangloss, work that is the best of all possible worlds. Which is to say that it is all right-ish, if not especially powerful or inspired. Yes, the piece crackles along from horrifying incident to incident with the zippy pace that feels true to Voltaire’s original. What this Candide lacks, though, is any connection to emotion or to characterization. It is one thing to condense the entire plot of an action-heavy book into a schematic narrative; it’s quite another to successfully translate the quirky attitude, the emotional undercurrents and the meaty philosophical discussions.
Jory chooses to open his story on a Louisiana plantation on the eve of the Civil War, instead of Voltaire’s European Westphalia setting, with Candide himself (Scott Golden), being an affable doofus who beams happily as he wanders from increasingly dire situation to situation. His beloved Cunégonde (Kalinda Gray) is a sultry, Scarlett O’Hara-like plantation maid, and his hapless tutor Pangloss (Paul Turbiak) is a brittle, stick insect-like priss.
Candide endures being press-ganged into the rebel army, believes his beloved has been raped and murdered, and discovers Pangloss riddled with leprous, sexual diseases. He journeys from Louisiana to the legendary city of treasure and happiness, El Dorado, and then leaves with a fortune in diamonds and gold, which is quickly stolen by the villains of the world when he returns to Europe. He is ultimately reunited with Cunégonde, who has become a hideous, damaged crone from years of slavery and abuse. Is this the best all possible worlds? Perhaps. But if so, I’d hate to see the worst of ‘em.
It is people, not fate, that are cruel in director Paul Plunkett’s workmanlike, if unexceptional staging. And, even with designer Tifanie McQueen’s somewhat artful trappings of set pieces that fold outwards and inwards with airplane wing-like flaps, it’s the people who are the focus of the staging. The trouble is, Plunkett opts for a stylized tone that borders on the absurd and that feels noticeably distant from any of the larger-than-life emotions the characters are supposed to be feeling.
Golden is sweetly bland, if one-note as the naïve Candide. Gray is amusingly flighty as the sensual Cunégonde but is less convincing as she ages and wizens. Other cast members make as much as they can of this fast-paced atmosphere, but the tonal flatness is ultimately too much. The result is a show that feels almost like an academic exercise: It hits its marks in terms of the plot, but leaves one feeling nothing in the end.
Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., East Hollywood. Fri.- Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., Oct 4 & 11, 7 p.m.; through Oct 17. (310) 281-8337, sacredfools.org. Running time: One hour, 25 minutes.