Remy Bumppo Theatre Company is currently presenting a world premiere adaptation of Augustin Eugène Scribe’s Puff: Believe It or Not through January 7, 2018 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, Chicago. The play, translated from the French by Ranjit Bolt is directed by Nick Sandys and features terrific period costumes by Rachel Lambert, a very clever set by Joe Schermoly, and fine original music and sound design by Victoria Deiorio.
Augustin Eugène Scribe (1791-1861) was a French dramatist known for creating the so-called “well made play,” a staple of popular theatre for over 100 years; he was also the librettist of many very successful grand operas. One extremely interesting fact about the way he crafted his plays: he utilized other writers to flesh out, or fill in certain important aspects of the work, similar to the way popular artists will have assistants fill in the background in their work.
A description of this process, from Scribe’s obituary in the New York Times, March 11, 1861, follows:
“Less a dramatist than a manufacturer of comedies, vaudevilles and opera librettos, SCRIBE produced, in the fifty years of his professional life, more material for the theatrical amusement of France, and all the rest of the world, than any ten others in his line of business; for with him it was a mere business — its operation mechanical, and its object money. More than four hundred plays are ascribed to his pen, and for the concoction of these he had a veritable factory, where he employed the services of such journeymen and apprentices as in France are elegantly denominated collaborateurs…. Each had his specialty — this for the idea, that for the plot, another for the dialogue, still another for the verses … Then there was the incalculable SCRIBE, full of expertness and industry, overseeing all, directing all, adding here a quaint character, there a bewildering situation, in another place a sparkling epigram — all point and surprise; and the end that crowned the work was the honesty of attaching, beside his own signature, the name of his principal collaborateur.”
This approach, of course, begs the question: “If the work is not fully one’s own, is it indeed one’s own?” Such issues form part of the myriad of attacks laid upon the shoulders of the various “scribes” in “Puff”- they allow others to influence their work, “make up” their facts, buy the texts they pretend to have composed. Indeed, such fastness and looseness with the truth- along with the exigent demands of publicity and the felt need to rush into print- forms the basis for the term “puffery”.
By combining the elements of French farce/drawing room comedy with the addition of a character/commentator/instructor in the person of the senior member of the cast, the audience is taken on a romp through a deal of genteel horseplay. There is, throughout, a clever and intricate narrative construction.
In Le Puff, 1848, Scribe/Bolt gives us as hero a cavalry officer who has come home to Paris after five years fighting in the desert of Algeria. He discovers that his countrymen seemingly cannot speak in a straightforward fashion; they fill their discourse with “exaggeration, dissimulation and downright lying”- or “puffery”.
Surely society’s politicians, writers and businessmen must have been like this before he left; perhaps he was too young and blind in love with honor and his friend’s sister to notice. Now that he is back, he must needs deal with his own limited purse, the importuning of that friend to sell him worthless stock options, and his love.
The qualities for which Scribe’s work has stood the test of time- including complex and elegant plot structure, Dickensian personalities, rapier-like repartee- are retained in this witty and vibrant script that eviscerates the mores of it’s time, and harks to our time as well. Starring Peter A. Davis as the amoral smarmy publisher Bouvard, Joshua Moaney as the perpetually indignant/swooningly lovelorn d’Angremont, David Darlow as the worldly-wise yet kindly Desgaudets, Christopher Sheard as the foppish and amoral Comte, Gregory Geffrard as the hapless, foolish and perennially distraught Maxence, Netta Walker as the ingénue Antonia, Kelsey Brennan as the determined-to-get-a-titled-husband Corinne, Matt Browning, and Jerry Bloom.
Subscriptions and Single Tickets are available by calling The Greenhouse Theater Center Box Office at 773.404.7336 or go to www.remybumppo.org
All photos by Nathanael Filbert