Moliere comedy ‘The Bungler’ well executed by Shakespeare Theatre of NJ

PHOTOS BY JERRY DALIA

Aaron McDaniel, left, and Kevin Isola co-star in “The Bungler,” which is at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison through July 30.

Mascarille keeps trying to make things better, but that only makes things worse. But it’s not really his fault.

Mascarille — played by Kevin Isola in the production of Molière’s “The Bungler” that is currently at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison— is the valet of Lélie(Aaron McDaniel). AndLélie is in love with Célie (Sophia Blum), a beautiful gypsy slave girl owned by the cantankerous Trufaldin (Eric Hoffmann). Mascarille has a rare kind of genius, coming up with one brilliant scheme after another in an attempt to propelLélie past Célie’s other suitors.

The schemes just flow out of Mascarille, effortlessly: He’s the Michelangelo of mischief.His schemes are so brilliant, though, that the always-a-step-behindLélie keeps bungling them, to Mascarille’s over-the-top (and frequently hilarious) consternation.

Devin Conway in “The Bungler.”

“The Bungler” isMolière’s first full-length play, first performed in 1655. It doesn’t get staged very often now, presumably because of a perceived lack of depth.

“Without a doubt, ‘The Bungler’ lacks the biting social commentary and acerbic wit of his later works, like ‘The Misanthrope,’ ‘The Imaginary Invalid,’ or ‘Tartuffe,’ ” Brian B. Crowe, who directed this production, concedes in the “Director’s Notes” included in the program.

Maybe so. But I promise that this production (which uses Richard Wilbur’s amazingly natural-sounding iambic pentameter translation) will keep you laughing from beginning to end. And there is a certain bite, ultimately, in watching a clueless upper class man of leisure, time and time again, fail to grasp what his relatively poor and powerless underling is doing.

A lot of the credit in making this production so successful goes to Isola, who portrays Mascarillewith playful wit and unflagging energy, as well as a sly smiles that establish a conspiratorial bond between him and the audience.McDaniel is fine, too, as Lélie, who, despite his constant screw-ups, remains somewhat sympathetic.

The colorful scenery, by Dick Block, helps create a bright, cheerful atmosphere, and Paul Canada’s costumes are a marvel. Just look at Mascarille’s dashing harlequin outfit and Lélie’s frilly foppery, at the top of this post; the explosion in pink that is the costume of Hippolyte (Devin Conway), above, or the rose-festooned suit worn by Anselme (James Michael Reilly), below.

Kevin Isola, left, and James Michael Reilly in “The Bungler.”

“The Bungler” is running concurrently with a second Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production, of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which is at the theater’s outdoor stage at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown. (“The Bungler” is indoors at Drew University in Madison.) Both are frothy concoctions, and both are immensely entertaining.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is among Shakespeare’s most frequently performed works, though, and “The Bungler,” as mentioned above, rarely makes it to the stage, more than 350 years after its debut. So in that respect, at least, this is the more notable of the two productions.

“The Bungler” is at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison through July 30; visit shakespearenj.org.

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