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Divine Comedy

Two rare French one-act comedies, both with endings that are divinely inspired, comprise a new double bill.

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Meaghan Bloom Fluitt and Kurt Kingsley in a scene from Prosper Mérimée’s “The Coach of the Holy Sacrament,” included as part of “Divine Comedy” (Photo credit: Michael Abrams Photography)

Meaghan Bloom Fluitt and Kurt Kingsley in a scene from Prosper Mérimée’s “The Coach of the Holy Sacrament,” included as part of “Divine Comedy” (Photo credit: Michael Abrams Photography)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Divine Comedy, a pair of rarely produced French one acts, is part of an initiative by The Storm Theatre Company and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre to bring faith-based plays back to the New York stage.  An unusual offering, the more substantial play, “The Coach of the Holy Sacrament” by Prosper Mérimée, author of the novella on which the opera Carmen is based, has inspired Offenbach’s popular operetta La Perichole, Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and Jean Renoir’s acclaimed 1952 film, The Golden Coach. Henri Brochet,  author of “St. Felix and his Potatoes,” co-founded Les Compagnons de Notre-Dame in 1920, the oldest French theater troupe in operation, with his mentor Henri Ghéon with whom he also wrote earthy, comic short plays modeled after the works of medieval theater.

The problem with Peter Dobbins’ productions is not the quaint spiritual underpinnings of the plays but the fact that they are directed too leisurely and consequently do not generate any laughs, fatal for comedies. Several of the actors are innocuous where they should be more incisive. The rhythms of both plays seem much more formal and genteel than they need to be. The short, curtain raiser plays like an extended anecdote, while the longer, more famous play is a comedy of manners play that seems rather thin for its length. The stilted, old-fashioned translations from the French also do not help.

Mérimée’s “The Coach of the Holy Sacrament” takes place in Lima, at the court of the Viceroy of Peru, in 1770. It is the day that the Viceroy’s gilded coach has been delivered by ship from Spain. However, he is unable to use it to attend a baptismal ceremony at the church as his gout is acting up. His new private secretary Martinez trades in gossip about the Viceroy’s mistress, the famous actress Camila Perichole. By the time she arrives to ask a favor, his jealousy has been aroused to great heights. Nevertheless, she is oblivious to his mood and wants revenge on the ladies of the town who go out of their way to mortify her as beneath them socially. Her greatest desire is to possess his new coach and to be driven to the ceremony at the church. The ironic ending offers the divine intervention that the evening’s title suggests.

Kurt Kingsley’s Viceroy has the authority needed but not the variety and the playfulness of a man used to getting his own way. While Meaghan Bloom Fluitt’s La Perichole is a magnificently elegant creature, she fails to use all her wiles twisting the Viceroy around her little finger and cannot overcome the fact that there is no chemistry between her and Kingsley even though their characters have been carrying on a long term affair. As the gossipy Martinez, Dinh James Doan also fails to use any variation in his attempts to influence his employer the Viceroy. Ian Geary as the professor who arrives with a grievance against La Perichole and Fr. Andrew More O’Connor whose Bishop of Lima comes to offer his gratitude are both rather wooden in their respective roles.

Dinh James Doan and Jose Sanchez in a scene from Henri Brochet’s “St. Felix and His Potatoes,” included as part of “Divine Comedy” (Photo credit: Michael Abrams Photography)

Dinh James Doan and Jose Sanchez in a scene from Henri Brochet’s “St. Felix and His Potatoes,” included as part of “Divine Comedy” (Photo credit: Michael Abrams Photography)

The curtain raiser, Brochet’s “St Felix and His Potatoes,” is a short parable about faith. The elder gardener Felix is too tired to bring in all of his sacks of potatoes though he fears it may rain. He prays to the Lord to keep his sacks dry and safe until morning. In the meantime, a local thief hires a peasant to bring in the sacks and promises him three bottle of wine. However, the dim-witted peasant misunderstands the thief’s instructions. The ironic ending is proof of Felix’s faith being answered. As the thief, Doan is rather one-dimensional as a man exasperated by another’s stupidity. Sanchez (who also plays the nearly silent role of the Viceroy’s valet in the other play) fails to do much with the physically strong but mentally slow peasant who is more honest than his companion. Playing the title role, Kingsley’s Felix is a stereotype of a good and devout man.

Peter R. Feuchtwanger’s unit setting mainly in red is more successful with the Court of the Viceroy than the field before Felix’s house. Jeannipher Pacheco’s costumes for the court of Lima in the Mérimée play are both regal and sumptuous. The lighting design by Michael Abrams grows steadily darker for the Brochet play and is suitably bright for the Viceroy’s court. Considering how rarely the famous Mérimée play is staged, it is a shame that the production does not make more of an impression, while the Brochet playlet needs another style in which to bring off the low comedy of its story.

Divine Comedy (through October 22, 2016)

The Storm Theatre Company and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre

Grand Hall at St. Mary’s Church, 440 Grand Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit http://www.stormtheatre.com

Running time: two hours including one intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (628 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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