Curio Theatre Company scored a big hit with the Sherlock Holmes spoof The Hound of the Baskervilles in 2013, by British theater company Peepolykus (sound it out: people-like-us), so their take on Gustave Flaubert's 1856 novel would seem a no-brainer.
Unlike Hound, which was pure, zany, fourth-wall-shattering fun, The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary shows, and requires, some brains. How else could they tell a serious, respected story in a silly, parodic style?
No reading assignment
Unlike my experience with the novel -- assigned, one of a pile of classics, in a high-school Advanced Placement English class -- no advance reading is required. Director John Bellomo's four-actor ensemble explains the framing device Peepolykus employs to help us understand the novel, and how a theatrical framing device works, in frenetic style. The actors stop the play early on, risking "spoilers" to argue whether they should use the framing device of two ratcatchers (or, as they prefer, "vermin termination executives"); their slapstick disagreement fills in all the information we need.
The challenge for Peepolykus, Bellomo, and hardworking actors Andrew Blasenak, Chase Byrd, and Doug Greene, with Aetna Gallagher heroically assailing the title character, is to tell the novel's story of a repressed woman who finds temporary freedom in affairs. They risk making it meaninglessly silly or too weighed down by its gloomy outcome.
The Massive Tragedy revels in silliness first, not only with the ratcatchers but also with Paul Kuhn's inventive doors and cabinets, painted flat black from floor to ceiling and decorated with white chalk. When characters go to a bar, one writes "Le Bar" in chalk on the wall; when they move to a cafe, he erases "Bar," replacing it with "Cafe." The set's many fun surprises, including black-and-white two-dimensional animals, furniture, and props, share a lot of exposition clearly and hilariously.
More, and deeper
The play's success, however, depends on Gallagher's Emma. "I want to feel life," she yearns. "I want to inhale it!" For her story to exceed clever gags -- and there are many -- she must reveal a genuinely desperate woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, and she does. Gallagher, too often an unsung ensemble member as well as Curio's resident costume designer, lifts The Massive Tragedy above its comedic origins. (She performed a similarly superhuman feat in The Birds last fall.) Gallagher's all in for the ridiculous stuff, supplies great costumes for the men playing multiple roles, and still reveals an Emma Bovary worthy of a book lauded for defining the modern novel while controversially addressing the mistreatment of women in Western society.
That's quite a trick, and couldn't happen without Bellomo's insight and the men's balanced, nuanced performances, too. Byrd plays both of Emma's lovers, creating two distinct and subtle characters, and pops up often as a lisping Spanish ratcatcher. Blasenak makes Emma's hapless husband Charles recognizably all-too-human, in over his head as both husband and doctor. Doug Greene plays a wide variety of comedic roles with flair.
The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary has its cake and eats it too, preserving Flaubert's story while providing laughs right to the end with a big assist from Robin Stamey's colorful lighting and Connor Behm's booming sound for a surprising yet apt finale. It's a classic case of the whole exceeding the sum of its parts.