THE ROYAL COMEDIANS (MOLIÈRE) by Mikhail Bulgakov, directed by László Marton (Soulpepper). At the Young Centre (50 Tank House Lane). Runs in rep to September 21. $51-$68, stu $32, rush $5-$22. 416-866-8666. See listing. Rating: NNNN
The truism that history repeats itself gets a dramatic, poignant twist in The Royal Comedians (Molière), Soviet playwright Mikhail Bulgakov's look at the life of another theatre writer, Molière.
Its sweeping scope takes in Molière's marriage to the young Armande, his adoption and training of the ragamuffin Zacharie, quarrels with the clergy, encounters with royalty and, as an underlying theme, the power of theatre to touch the mind and the feelings.
Though the play is set in 17th-century France, The Royal Comedians resoundingly echoes Bulgakov's own career in the 1930s. The Frenchman worked under the patronage of the Sun King, Louis XIV, until he misstepped with one of his best-known plays, Tartuffe, which was taken as an attack on the clergy. Bulgakov was protected by Soviet leader Josef Stalin but had trouble getting his plays - including this one - produced.
Director László Marton's Soulpepper production, which adds scenes from the French master's own works to Bulgakov's script, draws the connection explicitly through its design, notably Victoria Wallace's costumes. When the actors perform Molière's works, they're in period clothing; offstage, they and those around them are in 30s clothes.
Chillingly, the French court and clearly wear mostly black, often resembling faceless secret-police thugs even before they start menacing Molière and his troupe; Richard Feren's sound design adds another sinister touch. In contrast, Louis XIV is dressed in a white uniform resembling Stalin's, with a touch of French period lace at the cuff.
Lorenzo Savoini's clever set design, in which chandeliers descend from the ceiling for Molière's performances, has a touch of the French farce, with a forced perspective that shows us a dozen or more doors through which performers enter and exit. But the doors can also turn into entrances to cubicles (or possibly interrogation rooms) in an impersonal bureaucratic government office, with harsh outer lighting dehumanizing the space even further. At times, designer Kevin Lamotte's hand-held illumination resembles pinpointing spotlights in a prison; those caught in the glare can't possibly escape.
Though Bulgakov's script is occasionally choppy in its second-act narrative, the production is first-class. Diego Matamoros is a king of actors, and as Molière he inhabits the playwright/actor with a splendour that fills the theatre. Expert in the selections from Tartuffe, The School For Wives and The Imaginary Invalid, he shifts effortlessly between being emotionally touching and hilariously funny as first a cuckolded senior, then a hypocritical, silver-tongued priest and finally a gullible man on his deathbed. Through Matamoros's performance we appreciate Molière's ego and appetite as well as his talent, understand his machinations while we see his big heart and philosophical mind.
The cast around him - including the graduating members of the Soulpepper Academy - gives him great support.
There's memorable work from Gregory Prest as the mercurial Louis XIV, an instructing parent one minute and a screaming tyrant the next; Raquel Duffy as Madeleine, a lead actor in Molière's troupe on whom the playwright relies for all sorts of things; Michael Hanrahan as de Charron, the cold archbishop who plots the playwright's downfall; and Stuart Hughes as the Marquis D'Orsini, the vain, dangerous, one-eyed swordsman put to use by Charron for his plot.
Daniel Williston exudes comic warmth as the Honest Cobbler, Louis's court jester, while Michael Simpson and William Webster bring the same generosity to their work as loyal members of Molière's company: Simpson as La Grange, the moralistic recorder of the company's history and secrets, and Webster as Bouton, valet and servant to the master, in a sense the playwright's own jester.
As the young lovers - both in the charming School For Wives excerpt (which intentionally echoes the offstage love triangle) and behind the scenes - Sarah Koehn and Paolo Santalucia have a believable chemistry. Santalucia is electric onstage, whether wooing, confronting his adoptive father or begging for the man's forgiveness. He's an actor to watch.
The Royal Comedians has the stamp of quality theatre, a blend of the special and the everyday. It's all the richer for that combination.