It has been a full generation since Stephen Wadsworth first came to McCarter Theater (with his trilogy of plays by French playwright Marivaux), and he is now welcomed as an old friend. His reputation as director, translator (or as he prefers it, “adaptor”) of both opera and spoken plays, has become worldwide. He has worked in Milan, Vienna, London, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, and Seattle, and his current staging of what is being called “The Figaro Plays” is certain to add much to that reputation.
Wadsworth, as McCarter’s Emily Mann has said, is “passionately an advocate for staying within the period and making that present tense. There’s no one like him who can do that.”
Here “The Barber of Seville” (the 1775 comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais, not the familiar 1816 opera by Rossini) is as fresh and modern as it was almost two-and-a-half centuries ago — with a superb cast, dialogue timed to extraordinary comic precision, impeccable costuming and lighting against Charles Corcoran’s multiple-level set — and even the silences commanding attention, brilliant in their intent.
The plot begins with the premise that Count Almaviva (Neal Bledsoe) has fallen in love with a young woman and followed her to Seville disguised as a poor student. In Seville, he runs into Figaro (Adam Green) — his former servant, now the local barber. Figaro informs him that the young woman, Rosine (Naomi O’Connell), is the ward of Doctor Bartolo (Derek Smith), who hopes to marry her for her social status and money. Desperate to stop the marriage and woo Rosine himself, the Count enlists Figaro’s help. And we are off.
Beaumarchais uses almost every device of his century to comic effect: disguises and mistaken identity, treachery, and the resulting confusion. Director Wadsworth keeps the pace brisk, and his company — every one of its members — easily handles the subtleties of character.
When there might be some confusion in meaning, adaptor Wadsworth steps in. For example, as noted in McCarter materials, when Rosine calls Figaro “monsieur” the 18th-century audience would instantly have realized that was a very rare thing — a gentlewoman calling a servant “monsieur.” It might well be completely missed today, so Wadsworth simply adds a bit to the dialogue. Figaro says, “It is unusual to call a servant monsieur.” And Rosine says, “It is unusual to respect a servant.” The translator has become the adaptor. And perhaps much more.
We will see many of the cast in the next work: “The Marriage of Figaro” opening next week. Green will be back as a superb Figaro, sly, but never devious; clever, but not with insouciance. Bledsoe is a charming Count in all of his disguises. O’Connell is both pretty and effective as Rosine, soon to be the Countess Almaviva. And Smith steals entire scenes as Doctor Bartolo, determined to keep Rosine for himself.
It is extremely rare to find a show so superbly honed and polished. And even more so to realize that it will be only a week before we see its likes again.
The Barber of Seville, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. In repertory with “The Marriage of Figaro.” Through Sunday, May 4. $20 to $82.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.