Francois-Marie Arouet, known to the world as Voltaire, was a towering figure of the Enlightenment, that period just before, during and after the 18th Century in Europe when science, politics and philosophy burst forth in new and world-changing ways. Also known as the Age of Reason, Voltaire was one of its greatest writers and thinkers. He was known for his wit and liberal politics, believing in freedom of religion, speech and the separation of church and state at a time when France was Catholic and the monarchy was absolute. As a result of his liberal writings, he was treated to several rounds of lock-up in the Bastille and exile to England. He later travelled to Prussia and became a chamberlain to Frederick the Great. All did not go well there, either, sad to say, but Voltaire was eventually allowed to leave. On his way home, he was detained in Frankfurt for several weeks by Frederick’s agents and this is when we meet him in a world premiere historical farce by Colin Speer Crowley, Philosophus, “A true and terrible recounting of the horrible events to befall…Voltaire at the vile hands of despotism and tyranny…” and which opens the season at Alleyway Theatre.
At the beginning of Philosophous, our hero Voltaire (Chris J. Handley) announces the time and place to his audience, and so begins his trials at the hands of the greedy Frau Schmidt (Christopher Standart) and Baron Von Freytag (James Cichocki), agent of that despot, Frederick. Along with his faithful servant Collini (Andrew Zuccari, who also plays the soldier, Dorn), Voltaire endures a series of humiliating experiences during which he decries tyranny and honors liberty with grand gestures at every opportunity. Arriving late in Act One, the lovely Madamoiselle Denis (Emily Yancy) comes in search of her “Uncle” Voltaire.
Mr. Handley is outstanding as Voltaire. His foppish manner belies his brilliant discourse. He speaks directly to the audience at times while being harassed by the “feeble little Hun,” engaging us in his plight and his ongoing monologues about freedom and tyranny. When he dons peasant clothing to hide from the Baron, he places an old straw hat on his blond curls and looks for all the world like Harpo Marx, but unlike that silent comedian, he loves nothing so much as the sound of his own mellifluous voice as he decries tyranny while also declaring, “I pillage for freedom." He condemns sophistry in Act One, and in Act Two confounds Dorn with a hilarious sophistic argument. Mr. Handley takes all of this on with glee and a twinkle in his eye. He is so much fun to watch.
Christopher Standart looks hilarious as the hausfrau who loves money above all else. Were he to simply stand still on the stage, he would still be funny, but he has some very good turns harassing Voltaire and making deals with the Baron.
James Cichocki is fine as the Baron, with his little Hitler mustache and leather whip. He is the quintessential enforcer, humorless and unaware of his absurd demeanor. One laughs at him rather than with him, as laughter is definitely not his forte.
Emily Yancy, as the voracious Madamoiselle Denis, with her kewpie doll mouth, rouged cheeks, and tremendous bosom is always eager—one might go so far as to say desperate—to give her body for, well, almost any reason at all. She is a woman obsessed with l’amour. Ms. Yancy plays Mlle. Denis to the hilt, never wavering from her desire to throw herself into any situation that might result in l’amour, and always on the lookout for new opportunities to use her many talents. She is a hoot.
Andrew Zuccari says it all with his big eyes. They gaze in amazement at Mlle. Denis’ attributes and in wonder and confusion at Voltaire’s sophistry. He has an innocent look that also has a hint of knowing just how ridiculous everyone around him is.
Mr. Crowley’s script is chock-a-block with witty dialogue, broad comedy, and is very, very funny. He expertly melds what appears to be complex thought with farce. However, I think some of the dialogue between the Baron and Frau Schmidt and the Frau and Voltaire could have been tightened up. At time the dialogue seemed a bit drawn out and detracted somewhat from the general hilarity. This is a minor glitch in an otherwise very well written script. I note that his choice of Von Freytag for the Baron’s name is a nod to Freytag’s pyramid, a diagram that shows plot structure. Were there other inside jokes I missed?
Director of this production and Founder/Executive Director of Alleyway Theatre, Neal Radice, chose an outstanding cast for Philosphus. He keeps the action moving, the pratfalls coming, and highlights the particular skills of each of his actors while they chew up the scenery. Mr. Radice was also very busy designing the sets, lights, properties, and sound. I like the half-timbered houses that are a reminder of old Frankfurt. The delightful costumes are by Joyce Stilson and Todd Warfield, with wig styling by James Cichocki.
Philosophus is great fun. I enjoyed it thoroughly. You can see it at Alleyway Theatre until October 6th.