For its first production of the 2022-23 season, Pioneer Theatre Company both embraces and bucks tradition with a new adaptation of Molière’s comedy Scapin. The play, which premieres just in time for the French playwright’s 400th birthday, may be a classic, but director and adapter Stephen Wrentmore has fully reimagined the play for 2022 audiences.
Scapin follows two wealthy matriarchs, Arganta (Celeste Ciulla) and Geronta (Sofia Jean Gomez), seeking suitable brides for their sons. Meanwhile, their sons Léandre (Adrian Baidoo) and Octave (Alex Walton) are smitten with women from different social classes. Léandre’s scheming servant Scapin (Kate Middleton) steps in to help Arganta and Geronta find suitable brides for their children while secretly aiding the pairs of star-crossed lovers, tricking them all for her own gain.
Instead of writing a straightforward translation, Wrentmore says he wanted to “show a new light on the piece without fundamentally changing the intentionality that Molière had.” “In order for theater to continue to be alive, it has to speak to its audiences of its day,” Wrentmore says. One of the biggest changes—Wrentmore reconfigured several principal roles for female actors, including the title role. “There’s a moment in actors’ careers where males start getting really interesting roles and women drop off the scene,” he says. To make this adjustment, Wrentmore didn’t only cast more women—he imagined completely new characterizations. “Everything about the script has to change to recognize that that shift has been made,” he says. This version of Scapin is set in 1960s Italy, an era of rapidly changing gender norms and social expectations that adds new layers to this adaptation’s depiction of women in power. (Wrentmore says Geronta’s character is partly inspired by Donatella Versace.) The updated dialogue also uses contemporary language and modern references while removing sexist and racist stereotypes found in the original.
These changes liberated Wrentmore and the cast from faithfully recreating the original text. Instead, their focus shifted to whatever they found most entertaining. “Our job isn’t to teach the audience commedia dell’arte or show how clever and profoundly wise we are in our understanding of theater tradition that’s over 400 years old,” Wrentmore says. “Our function as a company is to tell a story that makes people laugh.”
For Middleton, the starring role offered an exciting challenge. “It’s always fun to play a part where you get to be smarter than everybody else in the play, but you’re not respected as such,” she says. This production’s nontraditional casting offered her a juicy comedic role that’s not often given to female performers, especially in classical theater. “It becomes very tiresome…to not be allowed to do these roles because that’s not what’s expected,” she says. “It’s always thrilling when you get a breakdown for an audition where they have swapped the gender roles.”
Wrentmore had to work quickly to create this new adaptation. After he and PTC’s Artistic Director Karen Azenberg agreed to produce Scapin, he finished the first draft of his version only a month later. Wrentmore kept revising—and sharing his work with the cast—throughout auditions and rehearsals, which fostered a close collaboration between the director and actors. “This text has been up for negotiation, so there’s been a sense of ownership about what everybody’s doing,” he says. After work, the cast spent time together and lived in the same housing, and during rehearsals, Wrentmore encouraged the cast to explore, avoid intellectualizing the script and “find out with [their] bodies.” “We were playing from day one,” he says. “That in and of itself created its own chemistry.”
Now, the company of Scapin is ready to welcome what Wrentmore calls the play’s “the missing character”—the audience. “The audience is Scapin’s only equal in the room,” Middleton says. As Scapin’s clever deceptions pile up, viewers get the secondhand pleasure of watching her put the rich and powerful in their place. “It’s mischief, not vengeance,” Wrentmore explains. “The fulfilling part of Scapin’s journey is that over and over again, she gets away with being mischievous.”
While classic theater can have a reputation for stuffiness, both Wrentmore and Middleton are quick to emphasize that this Scapin is a breezy comedy with 2022 audiences in mind. “Don’t think too much, just come and have fun,” Middleton advises. “This play has a twinkle in its eye that I hope becomes infectious,” Wrentmore says.
Scapin will be at Pioneer Theatre Company from Sept. 16-Oct. 1. For tickets and more information, visit PTC’s website.