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Le Petomane: A Comedy of Airs

LA JOLLA--Even though it's built around a stage act in which the performer amuses the audience by passing gas, "Le Petomane," cheekily subtitled "A Comedy of Airs," doesn't actually stink--it just sinks, and spends a lot of time at the bottom.

With:
Cast, Paul Magid, Howard Jay Patterson, Michael Preston, Sam Williams.

LA JOLLA–Even though it’s built around a stage act in which the performer amuses the audience by passing gas, “Le Petomane,” cheekily subtitled “A Comedy of Airs,” doesn’t actually stink–it just sinks, and spends a lot of time at the bottom.

The Flying Karamazov Brothers, a generally amusing foursome of non-flying, non-Karamazov non-brothers, start on the trail of a good idea but detour into aimlessness.

The wildly meandering story, devised by the brothers K and director Robert Woodruff, centers on the true tale of Joseph Pujol, a baker from Marseilles–the title is his nickname–who delighted 1890s French audiences by breaking wind on stage.

His skilled sphincter muscle proved sensational — a program note says Pujol outgrossed (pun probably intended) Sarah Bernhardt in box-office receipts–with its ability to emulate various sounds and, with a tailpipe attached, play music.

Happily, because Pujol could reportedly inhale and exhale air through his anal orifice, his act was at least odorless.

Ah, but the idea of marking Le Petomane’s centennial theatrically fills the air with pungent possibilities. In this concept, unfortunately, few of them get realized.

The Karamazovs’ facility to inspire awe and laughter, particularly with their varied and agile juggling, gets suppressed in a muddled pastiche — supposedly narrated by Pujol’s 101-year-old son with the aid of a filmed reminiscence — that attempts to re-create the fin-de-siecle era, complete with a time-travel device and caricatured periodic German invasions. If all that sounds confusing, well …

The hodgepodge encompasses moments of high hilarity, such as Howard Jay Patterson’s imitation of Pujol’s act, complete with preparatory ablution; of middling pleasure, as when some audience members get dragooned into doing the can-can; and of low appeal, like the sickening depiction of Grand Guignol, with the stage abounding in blood and guts.

Woodruff’s coordination of stage animation and Barb Mikulak’s finely edited film works well, as does a final juggling-and-drumming number by the Karamazovs.

Patterson stands out as Pujol pere as well as his grumpily jealous son. The remainder of play and performers, however, registers as erratic at best, and raggedness even infects the Karamazov juggling, with an inordinate amount of drops on opening night.

Douglas Stein’s set captures the proper cheap-cabaret ambiance, especially its curtains composed of red plastic bags, while John Martin’s lighting aptly covers the necessary wide spectrum.

But the other tech work — like the mixed-up costuming and the sound that provided unscheduled noises for Le Petomane’s act — reflects the disarray that dominates this production.

Le Petomane: A Comedy of Airs

(Mandell Weiss Forum; 490 seats; $ 29.75 top)

Production: La Jolla Playhouse presentation of a comedy in two acts by Paul Magid (Le Petomane's act by Howard Jay Patterson). Conceived by the Flying Karamazov Brothers and Robert Woodruff. Directed by Robert Woodruff.

Creative: Sets, Douglas Stein; costumes, Susan Hilferty and Candace Cain; lighting, John Martin; music, Doug Wieselman; sound, James LeBrecht; ballet choreography, Doug Elkins; film production, Barb Mikulak. Reviewed June 14, 1992. Closes July 12.

Cast: Cast, Paul Magid, Howard Jay Patterson, Michael Preston, Sam Williams.

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