Pip, Pip, Hooray

Photo by Peter Stetson

Simple joys: Evelyn Rios-McFadden, Robin Downward, Holly McGovern, and Michael Hale make magic in ‘Pippin,’ a complex commedia dell’arte about one simple man’s life.

The Santa Rosa Players score a hit with ‘Pippin’

By Gretchen Giles

Take the future heir to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, add a little war, intrigue, sex, circus-making, love, pacifism, stilt-walking, laughs, spiritual searching, singing, breastplates, acrobatics, sword fighting, audience asides, and dance-dance-dancing, and you’ve only got a part of Pippin, a modern commedia dell’arte given an exuberant execution by the Santa Rosa Players.

Directed with verve and wit by Players’ administrator Ross Hagee, Pippin is all of the above and more. Tackling a fairly serious subject–one at least as serious as that which occupied Dante and Kirkegaard: mainly, the search for meaning in life–Pippin follows the trials of the son of Charlemagne when he returns from the University of Padua in A.D. 784.

Sounds kind of, uh, historic and dry, right? Far from it. Those afraid to endure a cast of California-born actors trying out wobbly Shakespearean accents while making those broad, sweeping arm movements so characteristic of amateurish costume dramas should think again, because Pippin is anything but historic and dry.

And even if it were, director Hagee seems to have made some deep, solemn vow not to let that impede him, using visual jokes to lighten every moment that might–God forbid!–lapse into just plain old seriousness. And he handles it so deftly that I nonetheless left the theater in tears, moved by the simple truth of the ending (even punctuated as it is by a laugh).

Pippin (played with an all-stops-pulled-out grace by Robin Downward) believes himself to be extraordinary, a learned young man who deserves a life that is “completely fulfilling.” Setting out to find such a mythical life, he dabbles in war and power, peace, sexual exploration, religion, and the dreary rigors of domesticity. Guess which one sticks?

Structured with the audience-aware audacity of a traveling show from 300 years ago, Pippin–with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Roger Hirson–is get-the-giggles clever. The action opens with the nine assembled Players hunched in a mosaic of faces and body limbs in the center of the stage. As the cast disassembles, out leaps the Leading Player (Christian David Caetano), sort of a Jiminy Cricket gone awry, who leads and misleads Pippin on his journey of discovery, delivering terrific songs and dance numbers along the way. Caetano suffered hellish miking problems on opening night, but even those couldn’t obscure his voice and command of the stage.

Bob Fosse directed the show when it opened on Broadway, and choreographer Catherine DePrima has wisely chosen to adopt a Fosse-like style that is inimitable for the production. You know: women in bowler hats and canes, standing bent over in high heels with one leg relaxed and the buttocks raised. It doesn’t matter that they’re also wearing outrageous pointy gold breastplates and are smiling through faces painted like surreal mimes–this is sexy stuff.

The rest of the outstanding cast includes Michael Hale as the forgiving Charlemagne (he affably pulls a knife out of his own back after he’s lain dead on the stage for a rigor of a mortis); Lynda Harvey as his strumpet of a wife, Fastrada; Trey McAlister as Pippin’s muscle-headed half-brother; Evelyn Rios-McFadden as the giddy queen mother, Berthe; and Holly McGovern as Catherine, the widow with a son (Darren Andrew Shipley) who finally proves to Pippin that homely domestic love can be grand and deep and wide.

The costumes by Magrita Klassen and Anne Fogarty are imaginative and funny, and the live orchestra directed by Hagee is crisply focused. Scenery of more opulence and professionalism would have enhanced this production–most of the action takes place on a bare stage with an old white screen hung at the upstage top, and there are the usual Players’ cardboard-cutout trees that have seen better days. But Pippin is so joyfully rendered, so on target and entertaining that Hagee could have mounted it in a leaky basement and it would still be a pleasure to watch.

Pippin plays Fridays-Sundays, through Feb. 17. Fridays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. Lincoln Arts Center, 709 Davis St., Santa Rosa. $10-$14. 544-STAR.

From the Jan. 25-31, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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