William Webster (left) and Diego Matamoros elicit laughs and tears.
THE ROYAL COMEDIANS (MOLIERE) by Mikhail Bulgakov (Soulpepper). At the Young Centre (50 Tank House). Runs in rep to September 21. $51-$68, stu $32, rush $5-$22. 416-866-8666. soulpepper.ca. 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 emotions.
Though the play is set in 17th-century France, The Royal Comedians echoes Bulgakov's own career in the 1930s. The Frenchman worked under the patronage of the Sun King, Louis XIV, until one of his best-known plays, Tartuffe, 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 1930s clothes.
Lorenzo Savoini's clever set, in which chandeliers descend from the ceiling for Molière's performances, has a touch of French farce, a forced perspective showing 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 Kevin Lamotte's harsh lighting dehumanizing the space even further. Richard Feren's sound design adds another sinister touch.
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; he's especially fine in the selections from Tartuffe, The School For Wives and The Imaginary Invalid.
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 cast of mind.
The actors around him - including the talented graduating members of the Soulpepper Academy - give him great support.
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.