Voltaire’s Candide is certainly one of the greatest satires ever written, along with the contemporaneous Gulliver’s Travels of Jonathan Swift. Satire is a tricky business, one of the most intellectually demanding of literary forms.
These satires of the enlightenment have survived a quarter of a millennium because, however difficult their content, they remain extremely funny. Human nature (and human stupidity) hasn’t changed since the enlightenment and we can still laugh at the insights of these great writers.
The content of Candide is challenging. Voltaire takes on the major intellectual issues of his day, controversies that remain vital still. Why do we suffer? How should we respond to natural disasters? Is God just? How can we achieve happiness? Can we?
Human suffering? Hmmmm. This is a subject for comedy? Well, yes. It is the essential subject for comedy but it is, paradoxically, the saddest of subjects. Great comedy is, in some ways, much sadder than great tragedy. While tragedy provides catharsis and may move us to deep tears, comedy evokes embarrassment and cringes of recognition. Tragedy is ennobling and can make suffering seem important, worthwhile and meaningful; comedy just makes it seem silly which is funny. And sad.
All of which is to affirm the old theatrical adage: Comedy is hard.
In his adaption of Voltaire, director Brian Katz has wisely updated many references for contemporary Californians. He makes the characters very accessible. We are delighted, for example, with a spot-on impression of the Governator (I trust no further identification is required).
Okay, let me cut to the chase. Candide is a fascinating work, full of philosophical import, brilliant writing, funny characterizations, provocative thought. I wanted to love this production; I really did. But I couldn’t, quite.
Perhaps it was an off night (it happens with comedy) but the laughs were simply not there at the performance I witnessed, Although the language is crafty and the staging moves swiftly, the stylized performances, for the most part, were grating. Most of the actors, alas, seemed unable to get past style to authenticity. I couldn’t identify with them, and, thus, I couldn’t laugh.
I must add, however, that, unsurprisingly, the always remarkable AJ Davenport utterly transcended these difficulties. When she was the center of attention (fortunately several times for lengthy sequences) the material sparked to life. Ms. Davenport always delights. One longs to see more of this actress in the great comic parts. I’d pay dearly to see her take a swing at Madame Arcati or Lady Bracknell or the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, or even Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. Are you listening, producers?
I commend Custom Made Theatre and Artistic Director Brian Katz for continuing to present pieces that are challenging in the extreme. While I hesitate to recommend this production of Candide as a distracting evening of comic entertainment, I am sure that serious theatre devotees willing to put in some intellectual effort will appreciate this work. I suspect, too, that the production is a sort of delicate soufflé that will rise on some nights and fall on others. Why not take a chance? Custom Made is a company that always deserves our support.
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