By May S. Ruiz
Slamming doors, running feet, one revolving bed platform, screaming women, a gun-toting husband, a trysting place, and mistaken identities – all these are what make A Flea in Her Ear such a fun and hilarious treat of a play.
Hailed as the greatest of French farces, Georges Feydeau’s timeless classic will debut on Sept. 12, 2015, at A Noise Within in Pasadena. This new version, written by David Ives, was commissioned by the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and is the first show in the repertory theatre company’s 2015-2016 Breaking and Entering season.
A Flea in Her Ear tells the story of Victor Chandebise and his wife, Raymonde. After Victor’s brief bout of impotence, Raymonde suspects him of having a wandering eye. She asks her friend, Lucienne, to send him a letter luring him into a rendezvous with a mysterious lady at a hotel to see if he will show up. While this piques his curiosity, he takes the precaution of sending someone in his stead. The ensuing mishaps – a Victor look-alike bellboy and several miscommunications – all make for a madcap production.
For Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, who is directing A Flea in Her Ear, it is the realization of a long-held dream. “I have long wanted to do this play,” says Ms. Rodriguez-Elliott, “because I’ve loved it from the very first time I saw it. Frankly, there are funny shows – and then there’s A Flea in Her Ear. While it is a great source of naughty fun and every single element of farce is here in force, David Ives’ recent translation is available to us which makes it truly performable for our audience.”
As reimagined by Ms. Rodriguez-Elliott, this A Flea in Her Ear, originally set in La Belle Epoque, takes place in 1950s Paris. Ms. Rodriguez-Elliott explains “… I wanted to take it out of the stuffy drawing room and set in the ‘50s – before the sexual revolution, when married people didn’t go to couples therapy and didn’t talk about intimate issues. It was a time period when gender roles were clearly defined.”
Ms. Rodriguez-Elliott likens A Noise Within’s iteration of Flea as reflective of the comedy in the 1950s era. She says, “The two female leads – Raymonde and Lucienne – crazy, scheming, closest friends – are a bit reminiscent of Lucy and Ethel from I Love Lucy. Just as in that show, there are gender differences afoot – and they are somewhat ahead of their time in taking matters into their own hands. What breezes in as a minor misunderstanding blows into a comic whirlwind of gale force.”
That A Noise Within has a pool of resident actors has ensured a seamless production. Ms. Rodriguez-Elliott says, “While Ives has taken into account modern humor, he also knows that in great comedy the laughs come out of the essential humanity of the characters, and this has to be played along with a split-second timing. All of this is helped greatly by a sense of trust among the cast – 80 percent of the cast come from our repertory actors – that allows them to have a great safety with each other to perform the precise physical comedy of the piece…. This absolutely underscores the underlying premise of repertory theatre, and A Noise Within is proud to be among the few national companies that adhere to this time-honored, but increasingly rare theatrical concept.”
To prepare her actors for the demanding and grueling physical effort required for this play, Ms. Rodriguez-Elliott had them throwing tennis balls at each other around in a circle. As soon as they were adept at that, she added layers of complexity like having two tennis balls going around at the same time, or changing the workout to a hot potato mode. The actors did this while committing their lines to memory – physical motions and spoken words became one effortless exercise.
Actors go through intense rehearsals for several weeks. During dress rehearsals, typically held about five days before preview week, actors don their costumes, props appear, and the lighting comes on. All the elements slowly come together as the play comes alive. As exciting as that sounds, Ms. Rodriguez-Elliott says, “The first day of dress rehearsal is usually a disaster!” All of a sudden actors realize they need to change parts of what they had practiced to allow for costume requirements. The clothes they’re wearing may be difficult to walk in, or the prop might be cumbersome to hold. This is when they need to make adjustments and integrate these to the flow of the play.
During play previews, Ms. Rodriguez-Elliott would be furiously making notes, determining what works and what needs tweaking. According to her, “… sometimes the play the audience sees on Opening Night is very different from what we started out with. If we find that there are things that are not working with audiences on several nights, we’ll make changes.” The Opening Night production of A Flea in Her Ear will have been the culmination of rigorous rehearsals and various changes. The process gives true meaning to the phrase work in progress.
A Flea in Her Ear reflects the theme of the 2015-2016 season at its most literal. Ms. Rodriguez-Elliott describes it as a show where “the characters are breaking conventions in terms of their sexuality but by the end of the play the couples enter a new phase of their life together.”
But not before much mayhem occurs, to the delight of its audience. As Ms. Rodriguez-Elliott laughingly refers to the massive confusion that unfolds before us, “… it is a beautiful chaos.”