nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 19, 2009
Rabbit Hole Ensemble's smart new play Candide Americana brings Voltaire's famous satire entirely up to date, allowing its themes of humanity vs. inhumanity and pragmatism vs. optimism to resonate within a wholly familiar context. Playwright Stanton Wood follows the structure and plot of the original book with great felicity to tell the story of Candide, an innocent young man who lives in the household of a baron in Bosnia at the time of the recent civil war. With the two daughters of the baron—the headstrong and ambitious Alfonsina and the beautiful and spoiled Cinnabunsa—Candide is tutored by Dr. Pangloss, who teaches his charges that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Candide is a devout disciple of Pangloss's philosophy...but events sorely test it (and him) as the play unfolds.
The civil war reaches the baron's castle, and the family is raped, pillaged, and slaughtered. Candide, banished by Alfonsina for kissing Cinnabunsa just before the castle is attacked, is caught up in the crossfire of a battle and witnesses the killing of a soldier who urges him to take cover. A Red Cross van appears and before he knows it, Candide has been whisked away to New York City as a refugee.
Here, things really become trying for our hero. Not to give too much away, but Candide witnesses/becomes embroiled in such recent human and natural catastrophes as the sinking of the Staten Island Ferry, the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina, E. Coli contamination, and the current recession. Along the way, he commits more than one murder (in self-defense), rescues Cinnabunsa from various horrifying situations, and meets up with a cast of characters that will be entirely familiar if you know Voltaire's original, including an Old Woman with only one buttock and a philosopher, Martina, whose dour world view is the opposite to Pangloss's. Candide also meets up with his old teacher again and again, even though he appears to be killed at several junctures.
Wood's script is deliciously clever in its mapping of events from the original novel to this version; he's also more faithful that I expected in preserving the spirit of the ending. The satirical jabs are mostly at the predilections of anonymous men, women, and mobs at the hands of capricious rulers and random natural disasters.
Edward Elefterion's direction of Candide Americana is absolutely splendid. His trademark minimalism is used to terrific advantage here, with a cast of seven telling the tale with extraordinary energy and skill but very little in the way of props or costumes or lighting effects. (They also provide the sound effects, which is less effective: I would have liked some sound design here.) The show unfolds presentationally, in the style of story theatre; Elefterion exploits every advantage for broad humor in his staging without ever going too far over the top. The cast does excellent work, led by the eminently likeable Josh Sauerman as the naive and earnest Candide, and anchored by the ever-reliable Arthur Aulisi, hilarious and stalwart as Pangloss and a variety of other outlandish characters. Lauren Murphy is a beautiful and very funny Cinnabunsa (a rare combination), and Damon Pooser is excellent as Carlos, Candide's comrade whom he meets in a New Orleans jail cell, and others. Rounding out the ensemble are Amanda Broomell, Lora Chio, and Emily Hartford, all called upon to play many roles throughout the antic evening.
Candide Americana is enormously entertaining. It makes the classic work accessible and contemporary and reminds us of its wisdom, which can certainly come in handy at a time when the notion that everything is for the best seems frequently at odds with what's going on around us.