‘The Metromaniacs’: Verbal Acrobatics—and Not About Metro

It wouldn’t hurt to put a carny barker out in front of Harman Hall where the Shakespeare Theatre Company is staging a production of “The Metromaniacs,” originally by a French playwright by the name of Alexis Piron, who hung out with the renowned philosopher Voltaire.

You could have the barker marketing the old-fashioned way to passers by, as in “Pssst . . . looking for a good time?  Step right in.  They’ll have you rolling in the aisles.”

And they will.  “The Metromaniacs” is such good fun and so funny that they might even hear the rolls of laughter in the streets,  and it won’t be because it’s karaoke standup night at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

What it is is an outrageous evening of rhyming, a lost art as in “Brian Cryin’,” bad puns and contemporary references, a spirited, rhyme-on-a-dime (it’s catchy, like measles, but much more fun) crew of actors, and another really smart and fun collaboration between STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn and adapter and playwright David Ives. 

Kahn and Ives have beaten the bushes in 18th-century French farce before to great success and rewards for the audience in the much acclaimed “The Liar” and “The Heir Apparent,” both of which were beautifully staged with cares and a spirit of invention that out-invents itself.

The title, “The Metromaniacs,” refers to a group of Paris intellectuals,  competitive poets and people of the theater who have nothing better to do than compete with each other in couplets and stanzas, as opposed to foils and dueling pistols.  Metromaniacs, as one character suggested, are not people obsessed with the Metrorail System, as many of us are these days.  They just rhyme everything in the play.

This is a barrage of rhyming—you have to be a  little amazed and awed. It is so smartly done that it resembles a doubles game of ping pong with six balls in play at once, or a night out with the Flying Karamazov Brothers, pranksters of old, juggling chain saws and balloons. The verbal dexterity is so sharp that if you happen to be for some reason even for a split second thinking about texting somebody, you will be lost like a drunk on a tightrope.

There is also a plot, so dense and confusing that it defies description, but we must or bust, so:  a gentleman named Francalou, wealthy, wise and a secret poet (his nom de plume is a female) is holding a soiree for the rich and wealthy and his competitors in the poetry game, a party that will have his ditsy, but ritzie daughter on hand, along with a potential swain or three, a smarter-than-everybody maid (always important in these things),  a playwright-once-lawyer, and his smarter servant, an uncle of the playwright  and several characters who appear to be incognito, which seems kind of neato and here is also rhymed with libido.

Somewhere along the way, things appear to get lost—people disappear that weren’t even there, others mistake their lovers for other lovers,  and sometimes long-lost relatives are re-united.

Ours is not to reason why, wi-fi not, but just to sit back and let the laughs come—and they are hits that keep on coming.  Kahn and Ives have honed it to a true art form now, and they work well together. Kahn keeps things going at a not-quite-but-very-close to breakneck speed. It’s as if all the verbal tools at hand were being used,  although not always correctly. Kahn has always been an actor’s director, whose motto is respect the text, and Ives has always had a way with old and forgotten plays, sucking all the dust of the them to make everything feel as fresh as a ring-a-ding tweet.

The cast is outrageously splendid—you can tell because it looks easy and is as difficult as a man trying to get into tights.  You cannot do pas de deux rhyme games by yourself. This takes verbal dexterity, thinking (and remembering) on your feet, if they are unstable, moving around on a stage beautifully cluttered with a fake forest and stone, pretending to be slapped from across the stage and creating a character that people can relate to.

Standouts here are: everybody.   I give you Amelia Pedlow, who has the idling “whatever” in her classic French repertoire and a sudden attack of sexual fever that threatens to burn her petticoats as the smitten Lucille; Dina Thomas as her much smarter and well-rounded maid Lisette; Adam LeFevre, a jaunty poet and host who doesn’t mind putting on a play and dishing out 50-page rewrites;  Peter Kybart as a cantankerous uncle to the multi-faceted Damis, played with smart speed and fury by Christian Conn (he is also Cosmo de Cosmos and Bouillabase).

They dash about the stage and pounce on rhymed words like soccer goalies, throwing in pratfalls,  bits of physical comedy that everybody gets. They’re maniacs all right, as crazy as a fox who can box.

*“The Metromaniacs” will be performed at Harman Hall through March 8.*

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