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The idea that money can’t buy everything is forcefully and amusingly on display in “Der Bourgeois Bigwig,” a new Moliere adaptation that is the Program in Theatre’s fall show. Directed by Tim Vasen, the elaborate production often entertains but never fully satisfies.  

A century ago, the Austrian dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal attempted an adaptation of Moliere’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” a satirical portrait of a wealthy commoner who aspires to nobility that was originally performed in 1670 at the behest of Louis XIV. The new von Hofmannsthal version, titled “Der Burger als Edelmann,” included music by Richard Strauss and ran some six hours long. However, it collapsed amid squabbling between the creators before it was ever performed in public and fell into obscurity. A collaboration between playwright James Magruder, who is visiting at Princeton this term, and Tim Vasen and Michael Pratt, directors of the Program in the Theatre and the Certificate in Musical Performance, respectively, led to the present revival. The trio of collaborators crafted a streamlined version of von Hofmannsthal’s adaptation that runs under three hours and is liberally infused with contemporary American idiom.

“Der Bourgeois Bigwig” chronicles the unceasing attempts of Mr. Jordan (Gary Fox ’13), a wealthy businessman with undistinguished parents, to be recognized as an aristocrat. Mr. Jordan hires a bevy of consultants to teach him refined pastimes (music, fencing, philosophy) and surrounds himself with sycophants who subsist on his sizeable largess. As can be expected, he makes a fool of himself at every turn and is ultimately duped in an elaborate scheme intended to reunite his daughter with her lover.   

The large cast is surprisingly young, with only four students in the theatre certificate program and numerous freshmen. Most throw themselves into stock roles with appropriate enthusiasm, but there are few standout performances. As Mr. Jordan, Fox strikes a deft balance between feigned pretension and outright buffoonery. Peter Giovine ’14 fully embraces the exuberant style required for the production as Mr. Jordan’s fencing coach.  

The production values are spectacular, as to be expected given the considerable resources and technical support lavished on the fall show. Anya Klepikov’s sets are magnificent, a careful hodgepodge of the refined and the unfinished that perfectly capture the superficiality of Mr. Jordan’s social climbing. The elaborate period costumes (also designed by Kelpikov) are decadent and amusing. The production also includes a lovely live performance of Strauss’ score by the Princeton University Orchestra, conducted by Pratt.

The trilingual title is an acknowledgement of the play’s sprawling history and diverse source material. Magruder, Vasen and Pratt deserve considerable credit for reviving an obscure, difficult production. Unrevised, “Der Burger als Edelmann” would almost certainly be unsuccessful in mainstream American theater, but “Der Bourgeois Bigwig” is accessible and appealing to a broad audience.

There is a fine line, however, between eclectic and confused, and “Der Bourgeois Bigwig” often oversteps it. At its worst moments, the show manages to be both over-stimulating and tedious — dizzying in the frenetic leaps made between past and present, France and Germany and America, yet rather boring in its updated but predictable comedy. The laughter I heard was more polite than uproarious, and the final scene (an elaborate mock-Turkish ceremony) is uncomfortably stereotypical and not particularly funny. Given all the other liberties taken with the source texts, this would have been an ideal place to attempt a more subversive reading of the original.

The production also struggles at times with trying too hard, both to create something that never existed and to be a grand fusion of performance forms. This is never more evident than in the strange concluding monologue, which in bizarre humor describes the production as an interdisciplinary thesis project (it’s not, as far as I know) and as evidence for the importance of supporting the proposed “Arts and Transit Neighborhood.” In response, one spectator shouted a plea that the Dinky be kept in its current location. I’m not sure I could have thought of a better reply.

3.5 out of 5 paws

Pros: Interesting revival of a show with a fascinating reception history.

Cons: Confused concept, at times unremarkable humor.


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