Bill Irwin and the Seattle Rep are together again. The partnership between the new vaudevillean and the resident theater dates to 1989, when they collaborated on “Largely/New York,” which went on to a respectable Broadway run. More recently, the union was blessed by a three-year, $ 100,000 residency grant from the Pew Charitable Trust.
As Irwin’s current production of “Scapin” demonstrates, his attentions have strayed to a new love: Moliere. And one can only hope that his infatuation with the French farceur develops into a long-term commitment. It could be the start of a beautiful relationship.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more suitable match. Like Moliere, Irwin is attuned to the ironies of popular culture, skeptical of authority, and brainy but not above a well-timed pratfall. Irwin is also a man of prodigious talents, as he has shown by adapting (with Mark O’Donnell), directing and starring in this production.
Irwin takes the title role of Scapin, which Moliere himself assumed for the play’s debut in 1671. He is a sly servant who, in the course of pursuing his own selfish schemes, coincidentally restores order to his discombobulated household. The character is familiar from commedia dell’arte, but Irwin gives it a fresh — if sometimes bizarrely contorted — face. He clowns and camps and jitterbugs through the role: part Roger Rabbit, part Twyla Tharp.
What’s more, he speaks. This may come as a surprise to fans of Irwin’s silent clown routines in “Largely/New York” and “Fool Moon,” but he handles every verbal thrust and parry in the script as easily as he executes every physical dodge and feint.
Of course, since he’s adapted the play for himself, he was able to tailor it to his strengths. And it is quite clear that he was more interested in the spirit of the play than the letter. His adaptation is loose, almost free-floating, borrowing only the basic scenario: Boys meet girls, boys’ fathers object to marriage; Scapin intercedes; and then, by way of an “unbelievable coincidence” (identified by a large sign), all are united.
Along the way the script takes jabs at Congress, lawyers, fashion, the O.J. Simpson trial and every theatrical convention in the book. At one point Irwin even contrives to appear in (very convincing) drag, impersonating a Rep season subscriber.
Irwin seems most at home in extreme situations, broadly rendered. His style is so exaggerated and energetic that at times it seems the rest of the cast is performing in an entirely different (and much more pedestrian) realm. They are playing comic characters, while Irwin is playing his body like some kind of big, honking comic instrument.
Still, in their more actorly mode, the cast turn in some fine performances. Christopher Evan Welch is hilarious in his own right as Scapin’s reluctant sidekick, Silvestre. And R. Hamilton Wright is perfect as the ingenue Octave: sappy, romantic and mildly idiotic.
The only element of the production that disappoints is the clunky set, an Old World street scene with high, faux masonry walls. At least from the vantage point of the first few rows, the walls conceal more than they reveal.