Shakespeare, whoever he may really have been, has few arguable rivals as a creator of dramatic entertainments, in terms of breadth of genre as well as command of language. But when it comes to stage comedy alone, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better-known as Molière, certainly gives the Bard of Avon a run for his money. Given our current political and cultural zeitgeist, it seems like a great time to revive the venerable art of satire, of which the 17th-century French playwright was a master par excellence.
The Theatre Department at SUNY-Ulster is doing its part already, with five performances planned this week of Molière’s Sganarelle. It’s an interesting choice in not being among his more familiar and frequently revived plays in modern times. However, Sganarelle – alternatively subtitled The Imaginary Cuckold or The Self-Deceived Husband – was the most popular of the playwright’s works in his own time; he wrote the title role for himself and continued to star in it throughout his career. The character of Sganarelle made his debut in Molière’s very first play, Le Médecin volant, and reappeared in several other iterations.
While rooted in the lighthearted commedia dell’arte tradition and not as politically provocative to the French aristocracy and the Church as, say, Tartuffe, Sganarelle pokes fun at universal human frailties – notably our tendency to jump to conclusions based on flimsy evidence. The plot of the play might be described as a farcical version of Othello, with the jealousy-inspiring MacGuffin in this case being a carelessly dropped pocket-sized portrait rather than a purloined handkerchief. There’s also a terrible impending arranged marriage, as many absurd misunderstandings as you’ll find in The Comedy of Errors, a happy ending of sorts for most of the characters and a humiliating comeuppance for the bad guy. “Even when you see everything, never believe anything,” Sganarelle warns the audience at the very end: perhaps a timely caution in this era of “fake news” and trial-by-social-media.
Directed by Stephen Balantzian with a student cast, the SUNY-Ulster production of Sganarelle will be performed in the Quimby Theater at 7 p.m. on Wednesday through Saturday, November 15 to 18, with 2 p.m. Sunday matinée on November 19. To find out more, call (845) 688-1959.