Milwaukee — Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, is in the audience. When the electrifying word arrives backstage, Moli`ere and his company are on tenterhooks. Will their mighty patron be pleased with the show?
Someone takes a look. The king's applauding -- he likes it!
As Moli`ere's comedy troupe gasps with relief, the Milwaukee audience -- who are watching this episode on the Todd Wehr stage here -- sighs along with them. The Milwaukee Repertory Company is so good at conveying the spirit of the great French playwright's company that one actually feels the tensions and travails of 17th-century French show business, a deadly serious and sometimes desperate enterprise that depends on royal patronage and other nontheatrical needs.
And Mikhail Bulgakov's ``The Black Cross'' (translated from the Russian and adapted by Barbara Field), which has opened the Milwaukee Rep's 33rd season here, is so penetrating in its depiction of 17th-century censorship that its implications for modern history are plain. In fact, the historical plot -- about the banning of Moli`ere's great work ``Tartuffe'' -- took on a modern life of its own when ``The Black Cross'' was itself banned in the Soviet Union. Though finally staged there in 1931, it appeared only sporadically, because the Soviet authorities felt -- quite correctly -- that their own r'egime was being skewered by Bulgakov's story, in which certain church factions in 17th-century France are outraged by ``Tartuffe'' and conspire to turn Louis XIV against Moli`ere.
The well-managed action takes place on a modified thrust stage, whose set design by Scott Weldin -- especially in the first act -- is a creatively suggestive m'elange of objects denoting the company's theatrical life in the Palais Royal: velvet draperies, chairs, trunks, helmet, and wig stands.
It all takes place in a handsome but soon-to-be-abandoned amphitheater. The Milwaukee Rep is moving to a new home already under construction nearby. Audience sightlines from some angles are part of the problem, according to managing director Sara O'Connor.
But for this production, at least, the physical arrangements are fine, and so is the company, which is convincingly costumed by Sam Fleming. Moli`ere is played by Kenneth Albers with an effective mix of authority, vulnerability, and slapstick. He and his fellow players create an engrossing atmosphere of boisterous fellowship in the cause of comic art and sheer survival. The Palais Royal has the air of a bustling carpenter shop, and Albers's Moli`ere is good-hearted yet businesslike about writing and staging his plays. This production makes him the butt of jokes without fatally impairing the elusive dignity the character brings to the whole tragicomic proceedings.
What brings Moli`ere down in the end is inherently unrelated to censorship: It's the possibility that the young woman he marries during the story may actually be his own daughter, without his knowing it. To the clergy, this ready-made scandal is just a way of getting at Moli`ere so they can persuade Louis to ban ``Tartuffe.'' But to Moli`ere -- and to the audiences at ``The Black Cross,'' I think -- it's a psychic time bomb that overwhelms the censorship issue and makes the play a human drama that is psychologically deeper and more complex than it would have been otherwise. Actually, we get only snatches of why ``Tartuffe'' is so objectionable to the clergy. Details about ``Tartuffe'' are not the point of the story. It's about human malice, jealousy, and fanaticism, passions that lead the church censors to capitalize on Moli`ere's personal troubles.
As they meet these troubles, Moli`ere's valiant performers display an energetic comic style -- a survivor's humor akin to a certain kind of modern black comedy -- that is so pervasive it invades even some life-and-death moments, whose tone seems to merge uncontrollably with the jocular atmosphere. A duel scene ends in farce. A Keystone-Cops-like chase ensues when Moli`ere is cuckolded by his young wife.
The Milwaukee Rep's artistic director, John Dillon, who staged this play, and his cast deftly juxtapose this stylized comic manner with another, very different approach: an emotionally realistic dialogue during quiet, serious moments among members of Moli`ere's company and also at other points -- as when an archbishop is plotting to bring Moli`ere down.
But the comic style is the one used to depict the spiritually decadent court at Versailles. Daniel Mooney as Louis gives a fascinating, if one-dimensional, portrait of a supercilious mock tyrant saved from silliness by a hint of self-ridicule. His drawling, world-weary sovereign toys with lives and puts people in prison with an ``off with his head'' casualness.
The slightly surreal scene manages to convey that society's corruption and its ritualized sycophancy of manners, while sparing the Milwaukee company the thankless task of trying to establish the flavor of the court naturalistically. The scene works better, for instance, than another one in which members of the Black Cross, symbolizing vigilante-type clerical zealots, torture witnesses for information about the true father of Moli`ere's wife. This inquisition scene is certainly sinister, however, and serves well enough as a parable of how malice and fanaticism tend to go hand in hand with censorship.
Admittedly the show would lose a great deal without the built-in interest of its Moli`ere connection. The drama works best with all the modern implications of its historical roots in mind.
Yet the fictionalized Moli`ere is a considerable character in his own right, not quite a tragic figure but much more than a brilliant buffoon, and he is at the center of a production which -- though not a revelation -- is strong and often moving.
On Oct. 3, the Milwaukee Rep will open its own production of ``Tartuffe,'' to play in repertory with ``The Black Cross'' through Nov. 23.