This story was updated on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013.
Director Matthew R. Wilson holds a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, a master’s degree from the Academy for Classical Acting and is currently working on his PhD in Renaissance theatre history at the University of Maryland. But ask him what makes the work of famous 17th century French playwright Moliére’s work so enjoyable, and his answer is quite simple.
“It’s funny,” Wilson said. “The bottom line is, Moliére’s work was funny then and it’s funny now.”
Wilson will direct his first play at the University of Maryland, “Moliére Impromptu,” presented by the university’s School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies and opening Friday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
Translated and adapted by American playwright Rinne Groff, “Moliére Impromptu” is based on three of Moliére’s pieces: “The Doctor in Spite of Himself,” “The Forced Marriage” and “Impromptu Versailles.” The premise of the slapstick comedy is a director’s nightmare as he tries to rein in an ill-prepared cast for an important performance. The concept is based on actual events in the 1660s when Moliére’s theater company performed for the King of France. They were eventually selected as the King’s Players.
Considered a master of comedy, Moliére was one of the pioneers of slapstick and farcical comedy.
“It’s your basic confusing, ‘I thought you were this person, I thought you were this person, now we’re married and it all works out,’” said actress Rebecca Ballinger. A senior theater major, Ballinger plays Mademoisells DeBrie, the star actress in the play within a play, who often has the role of the “charming ingénue character.”
“She recognizes that she’s ... the celebrity of the cast,” Ballinger said.
Over the summer, Ballinger and her cast mates spent time watching classic comedy films to prepare them for their roles in “Moliére Impromptu.”
“I gave them a lot of homework over the summer of things to watch,” Wilson said. “The Marx Brothers or Steve Martin or Buster Keaton. All different forms of comedy that are now classics of TV ... We came in thinking about the nuts and bolts of comedy ... Why does this still work? What did you find funny and what made it dated or cheesy?”
Ballinger and her castmates said they returned from their summer vacation with the notion that the simplicity of Moliére’s humor is one of the reasons his work is timeless.
“I think what it is, is it’s just such a classic form of comedy,” Ballinger said. “It just takes us back to the roots of what makes something funny. The humor is so basic anybody can laugh at it. Anybody can get the joke.”
In addition to his academic pursuits at the University of Maryland, Wilson is also a professional actor (he has a role in an episode of the second season of Netflix’s “House of Cards”), director, playwright and the artistic director of Faction of Fools Theatre Company based in Washington, D.C. The group specializes in Commedia dell’Arte, a style that began in Italy in the early 16th century and has influenced opera, vaudeville, television sitcoms, Shakespeare and Moliére himself. The style is characterized by its use of masks, physical comedy and archetypes.
“The masks would represent different stock characters,” said Kara Waala, a mask and makeup designer for the show. Waala is working on her masters degree in costume design at the university. “[The masks] allow the actors to say things they normally couldn’t have said ... [They] kind of let the actors be free ... lowbrow people have the chance to poke fun at the highbrow comedy.”
His ability to poke fun is another reason Wilson said Moliére has remained relevant over time.
“One of the reasons Moliére has stayed contemporary and still speaks to us today is that he had this great knack for mocking high society and mocking the standards of culture that existed in Paris while still obviously wanting to be part of the society ...” Wilson said.”He had a real strong sense of irony, self-depreciation and a humorous point of view on how human beings create culture and create status.”