Sunday, August 2, 2009

Theater review: 'Viva Bourgeois!' cannily brings Moliere to Graceland

Caitlin Geier and Erik Fabregat
in Mad Cat Theatre's Viva Bourgeois!

By Hap Erstein

Only a mind like Mad Cat Theatre Co.’s Paul Tei, steeped in both the classics and pop culture, could have come up with Viva Bourgeois!

Instead of the troupe’s usual newly minted plays aimed squarely at its young audience of 30-somethings, Tei reached back to 17th-century France for his inspiration.

How do you get contemporary theatergoers to relate to Moliere’s social satire, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, the tale of a nouveau riche clod named Monsieur Jourdain, who searches for acceptance from a parade of money-grubbing, sycophantic tutors? Tei’s answer, and the more you think about it the craftier it seems, is to yank the play into 1971 Memphis, Tenn., and turn the central character into pudgy, hip-swiveling Elvis Presley.

For who else could convey the bounds of bad taste, excess and royal adulation like The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll? Caught in mid-career, before drugs and peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches did him in, Elvis is a succinct equivalent of exactly the sort of indulgent fool that Moliere was aiming his barbed arrows at.

But such historical parallels as justification are almost unnecessary as soon as company member Erik Fabregat lumbers onstage, stuffed into a gleaming white pantssuit, and opens his mouth, emitting a pitch-perfect Southern drawl. He is Elvis, to an extent that may actually get in his way on future performances in other projects. And when he steps to the microphone and sings -- original faux-Elvis ballads by the cunning Matt Corey, set to lyrics lifted from Moliere’s text -- the impersonation is complete.

Audience members who were not paying attention in French class may not realize, or even care, how faithfully Tei has adapted Moliere’s play, but that is part of the fun. Much of the first act concerns itself with those condescending tutors. And if Viva Bourgeois! transforms a fencing master into a karate sensei, well, that’s mere cosmetic alteration to tailor specifics to Presley’s preoccupations.

When, after intermission, the play introduces M. Jourdain’s daughter Lucille and her suitor, Leon, Tei seems to luck into a stroke of topical inspiration. For Presley’s daughter, Lisa Marie, you will recall, married pop royalty as well, and Troy Davidson does a devilish impersonation of Michael Jackson, sequined glove, moonwalk and all. Viva Bourgeois! has been percolating for months, of course, but Jackson’s media-monopolizing demise now looks like a windfall for Mad Cat.

The rest of the cast dives into Tei’s Moliered Memphis with headlong glee. Particularly amusing is Joe Kimble in two vastly diverse roles as a curly-headed Music Master and, later, a mercenary senator. George Schiavone’s Philosophy Master is strictly beatniksville and Erin Joy Schmidt is aptly shrewish as Jourdain’s appalled wife.

The farce runs out of steam eventually, but by that point Viva Bourgeois! has been such a hunka-hunka-burning good time, few in attendance will mind much.

VIVA BOURGEOIS!, Mad Cat Theatre Co. at the Light Box, 3000 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Continuing through Aug. 22. Tickets: $25-$30. Call: (305) 576-6377.

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