It was probably Og the Caveman, starring in the world’s first comedy play 20,000 years before the ancient Greeks invented modern theater, who turned to his companion and said “Walk this way!”
Regardless, when City Repertory Theatre stages “Scapino!,” which opens tonight, and the nurse turns to Scapino and asks him to “Walk this way,” and the clever, conniving scamp of a servant indeed walks that way, it’s not a matter of the play paying homage to the Mel Brooks movies “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein.” And it’s not a matter of nodding to the Betty Boop cartoon character, the sleuth Nick Charles (played by William Powell) in the 1936 film “After the Thin Man,” or any number of comic actors who heed the call to “walk this way.”
The roots of “Scapino!” go deeper than that.
For their 1974 comedy, creators Jim Dale and Frank Dunlop adapted the 1671 play “Les Fourberies de Scapin” (“Scapin the Schemer”) by the French playwright Molière, who in turn drew inspiration for his comic hero from a stock character of commedia dell’arte, that type of theater originating in Italy and then spreading throughout Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries.
In “Scapino!,” the servant Scapino schemes to manipulate his authoritarian master Geronte and a rival patriarch away from disrupting the romances of their offspring.
“You see this plot in 100 different plays,” says director John Sbordone during a roundtable interview that also includes Beau Wade, the City Rep veteran who plays Scapino, and Trey King, who portrays Scapino’s sidekick, Sylvestro.
“Molière based his play very specifically on commedia dell’arte,” Sbordone says. “And so you have stock characters. Even Neil Simon was still using those stock characters. The ones in this play are the two young lovers, who are gaga head-over-heels lovers. You’ve got the two fathers who are boisterous, angry, authoritarian and of course are trying to keep them apart. Scapino is the clever servant who has fun picking at all the establishment characters. I think of Sylvestro as his doofus partner.”
“Scapino thinks that he’s the smartest man in the room,” Wade says.
“He is!,” Sbordone interjects.
“Scapino is a genius,” Wade continues. “He’s quick on his feet. He’s quick-witted. He always has an answer for things even if he’s making it up on the spot. He’s good at getting people to turn around what they thought they wanted to do and making them do what he wants them to do.”
“Sylvestro is a huge admirer of Scapino,” says King, who has performed with Wade in such past City Rep productions as “Tick, Tick . . . Boom!” and “Romeo and Juliet.” “Sylvestro watches Scapino work. He marvels at him because he wants to be like him and he wants to somehow get to that level of awareness and intelligence. But he never will (laughs).”
Sbordone says “Scapino!” is “a free-for-all farce,” while Wade describes the play as “a very farce-y farce.” Indeed, City Rep promos trumpet the play’s “tall tales, bad impersonations, ridiculous chase scenes, disgruntled waiters, loveable panhandlers, melodic macaroni and misbehaving sausages.”
And there’s that “walk this way” gag.
So, did Moliere’s Scapino really “walk this way?”
“I’m not a Molière expert,” Wade says. “But this is a show that’s jam-packed with all the tropes and clichés that you expect from 17th-century French farce. What they’ve done is just updated the language a little bit.”
The title of the Dale and Dunlop play carries the curious tagline “a long way off from Molière,” which is a clever, Scapino-like ploy of misdirection that works on several levels: One, it advertises to theater-goers not to expect a straight-up adaptation of one of the world’s greatest playwrights (even if, as Sbordone sighs, “You can’t tout Moliere because no one will know who you’re talking about”). And two, that tagline preempts any criticism that “Moliere didn’t do it this way!”
Along with the vintage slapstick, other shenanigans abound: the use of a small wading pool, squirt guns, running scenes with that yard-long sausage, and more.
Plus, Wade says, “There are a lot of meta-references, and fourth-wall breaks which I don’t know Molière would have had.”
(“Breaking the fourth wall” is a theater term. The sides and back of a stage are three walls – the fourth wall is the imaginary one that divides the players from the audience. When a character says, does or references something that overtly or slyly reminds the audience that they are watching a play, that is “breaking the fourth wall.”).
As an example from “Scapino!,” Wade says, “There are jokes where I say to Silvestro, ‘You’ve been to the Actors Studio!’ ”
“Molière was the major comic playwright of France in the 17th century, bar none,” says Sbordone, who has staged “Tartuffe,” “The Misanthrope” and previous productions of Dale and Dunlop’s “Scapino!” during his decades-long career in theater. “Moliere was brilliant. He ran his own acting company, experienced all kinds of intrigues. He became the model for French comedy for the next 200 years.”
Sbordone calls City Rep’s 2022-23 lineup “our funny season,” noting that earlier productions of “Assassins” and “Charlie’s Aunt” tipped the scale somewhat away from the hardcore dramas that CRT has never flinched from staging.
“Beau said he loved ‘Charley’s Aunt’ and could we find anything funnier,” Sbordone notes. “I think this is going to be funnier.”
Other cast members of “Scapino!” include:
Ottavio — Austin Kelly.
Leandro — Marcus Roberts.
Argante — Tom Muniz.
Geronte — Fortunato Seveninni.
Giacinta — Joanne Gill.
Zerbinetta — Philippa Rose.
Carlo — Tabitha Ojibway.
Waitress — Joanna Grandel- Everett.
Costume designer is Diane Ellertsen and the stage manager is Jeannine Everette.
City Repertory Theatre will stage “Scapino!” at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday March 17-18 and March 24-25, and at 3 p.m. Sunday March 19 and 26. Performances will be in CRT’s black box theater at City Marketplace, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Suite B207, Palm Coast. Tickets are $20 adults and $15 students, available online at crtpalmcoast.com or by calling 386-585-9415. Tickets also will be available at the venue just before curtain time.
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