Friday, April 17, 2015

Theater that touches the heart

Marcel Pagnol: Fanny
Translated, from the French,
and directed by Roland David Valayre
Generation Theatre, San Francisco
seen 16 April 2015

Berkeley, 17 April, 2015—

WE SEE SO MUCH professional theater — probably ten or twelve productions a year — that we too easily fall into the trap of dismissing local and community theater as substandard, when of course that's not at all the point.  What is the point, I think, is the earnest and effective celebration of the literature of theater in a manner that approaches what seems to me to be its fundamental purpose, which is to investigate the human condition as the human animal makes its uneasy triangulation of self, society, and Nature.

Few playwrights manage that better than the Provençal Marcel Pagnol. As Roland Valayre notes in the program to this production, one of he "many talents as a playwright is his ability to create characters that can be both funny and moving within the same action, sometimes within the same sentence." Among his many successes in that direction is the Marseilles trilogy Marius, Fanny, and César, reasonably well known to American aficionados through the memorable film productions Pagnol made soon after the advent of talking motion pictures, but all too rarely given as legitimate theater in English.

Pagnol seems to me to be particularly appropriate to semiprofessional or amateur performers, whose own amiable weaknesses when compared (as they should not be) to seasoned professionals seem to underscore the frailties of Pagnol's characters — who represent, of course, you and me; certainly me.

Two years ago this Generations Theater presented the first play of the trilogy, and now, for a short time, they're back with the second, and it is welcome and worth seeing. There are problems, God knows, but those concerned with production were probably opening-night glitches — sound cues far too loud, scene-ending fades too slow, uncertain curtains. 

Overcoming those drawbacks was the undoubted good will and earnest affection for the text. Fannny opens with the concluding scene from the first play, Marius, recapitulating Marius's stormy departure from his father's bar and Fanny, the love of his life, for the more urgent call from maritime adventure, and then quickly we're presented with the engaging quartet César (bar-owner, Marius's father), Panisse (prosperous sailmaker), Escartefigue (ferryboat skipper), and that gentleman from Lyon M. Brun. All in their fifties or thereabout, they function as a sort of Greek chorus — Pagnol knew his classics well — representing the common man confronted with social and technological change in the period just after World War I.

I think the direction of the opening quartet, revealing the time passed since Marius's departure and Cesar's impatience at the lack of news from him, and expressing perhaps a characteristically Provençal cunning and irony, was too slow, threatening to sap the energy needed to grab the audience and move the play — a vehicle spending too much time in lower gears. I hope this changes in later performances. 

The  characterization seemed nicely done, though. A number of these actors are in fact French, though perfectly at ease in English; they have an advantage in being familiar with the Pagnol stock characters, and recreate them readily.

With the appearance of the female actors Pagnol's play moves from badinage and bonhomie to domestic tragedy. Marius has left Fanny pregnant; her mother Honorine is furious; her simpleminded aunt Claudine sympathetic. The play continues through its predictable course; it is its humanity and sympathy in dealing with the complex layers of morality and responsibility that maintain the audience's interest, not simply turns of plot.

Fanny is funny and warm-hearted and utterly humane, but it is also a serious play. The trick to success with Pagnol is the balance of these elements: and gradually, through the duration of the performance last night, opening night, that balance was struck. The goofy and — let's face it — rather labored practical joking of the opening scene moved, through the second act, and particularly the third, toward dramatic exposition of poignant, complex, quite engaging explorations of basic human quandary. Frailty of cast and direction met frailty of human character and motivation; in a sense, human issues, and Pagnol's art in investigating them, and the company's adequacies in bringing them to the audience, all began to converge.

Fanny is clearly the middle play of a trilogy. This production deals quite well with the problem of the missing "prequel," if you don't know it; but it definitely left me wanting to see the resolution. M. Panisse, assured me, as we were leaving, that the final play, César, would appear next year. In the meantime, and to prepare for its delights, I recommend you drop in on Fanny. The  production runs through April 26.


Civic Center said...

Over the decades in San Francisco, amateur theater has provided me with probably half the magical moments I've experienced with the art form. Nice to see it acknowledged, though it can also be one of the worst experiences in the world as a sophisticated audience member, which is why I so seldom venture out to the theater these days unless there's a professional musical component involved.

Al said...

My cultural life in SF wouldn't be half as interesting without local nonprofessiobal theater. Yes, there is great risk....precedingthe thrill of great reward (and that includes musicals notwithstanding the preceding comment).

I also love lit portraying post WWII society. I'll definitely be catching Fanny.

Curtis Faville said...


And you managed to avoid any mention of the restaurant altogether.

How politic of you!