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L'Étourdi ou les Contretemps (1655) is not on everybody's short list of Molière's best comedies. But this farce in the commedia dell'arte manner was one of his earliest hits. In this 2000 English version by venerable poet, lyricist, and translator Richard Wilbur, it would have been interesting to see how Molière's premiere humorous outing might have stood up on its own. Director Terry Glaser, however, has encrusted the show with so much extraneous monkey business and slapstick–even a rubber chicken–has encouraged most of the players in such excesses of clichéd muggings and gesticulations, and seems to have so thoroughly instructed the cast in the school of silly-ass acting that, although the audience was frequently provoked to mirth, much of whatever original qualities the play must have possessed seemed obscured.

At some point during rehearsals were actors who might have been attempting to develop sincere comedic performances told to yuck it up, to make it phonier? If so, several skilled performers have been guided down the garden path, encouraged to overexaggerate everything: not to walk if they could prance, not to prance if they could caper. Of the players, Dimiter D. Marinov, in the role of Trufaldin, the crabbed and suspicious guardian of the heroine, stands almost alone in being able to handle this artificial and facetious style with enough precision to create an engaging character. Janel DeGuzman as Trufaldin's ward, Célie, and Lisel Gorell-Getz as the thwarted soubrette Hippolyte manage to dodge disingenuousness and give credibly restrained performances. For the rest I can only say that David Ari as the sly servant Mascarille, Jeremiah Lorenz as his blundering young master Lélie, Tim Curns as the romantic rival Léandre, and David Gallagher, Wayne Jordan, and Anthony Pavelich in some absurd supporting roles work valiantly with what they have been given to do.

One thing they might more profitably have been encouraged to do would be to just tell the story with more clarity and interest, even if that had required sacrificing a few gags. The tale is really only one basic joke deep: Lélie courts the captive Célie, but each stratagem which Lélie's clever servant devises to unite the lovers is foiled by his master's own obtuseness. This pattern is repeated with silly variations. But I became so disengaged with the plot as to pass much of the time counting iambs or occasional dactyls in the rhymed couplets of Wilbur's translation. Jeanne Reith has assembled very bright and fine-looking costumes, and Marty Burnett's set design, lighted by Mia Bane Jacobs, has a cheerful Italianate ambience suggesting Luigi's Pizza Grotto. The director's own sound design however—sounding like theatre organ favorites played on a skating rink's mighty Wurlizter—proved, like many of her effects, more distracting than helpful.

"The Bungler," presented by and at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr., Solana Beach. Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. April 16-May 15. $23-$27. (858) 481-1055.

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