The Best of All Possible Shows: Candide at the Huntington

October 13, 2011

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Take a sunny, bright-eyed optimist. Throw him in a world full of warmongering Bulgarians, bloodthirsty Portuguese and thieving Dutch. Mix in one true love, some lecherous clergy and a few faithful sidekicks. What happens? Voltaire asked that question in 1759 when he first penned the classic satire Candide. The production of Candide, produced by the Huntington Theatre Company at Boston University Theatre, asks that same question with a jaunty absurdity that supports and enhances Voltaire’s original message.

The story of Candide (the titular character) begins with one central idea. God could have created this world in many other ways, but he didn’t. Because he chose this world to create, it means that this world is “the best of all possible worlds.” This attitude is embodied in the play by Candide’s first tutor, a scholar named Pangloss. As Candide suffers through various indignities, he comes back to this central theme again and again, questioning how a world so full of suffering could ever be the best of all possible worlds. Along the way, he meets several enchanting characters, including Cunegonde, his hilariously self-obsessed one true love; Maximillian, her brilliantly foppish brother; Cacambo, a faithful servant; and the Old Lady, a worldly-wise and long-suffering pragmatist with one buttock.

Absurdity at its finest. | Photo courtesy of Wikimedia user W.C. Minor.

This production of Candide, adapted from the musical by Leonard Bernstein and Hugh Wheeler by the Tony-award winning director Mary Zimmerman, excelled in a way few shows do. Each element– acting, staging, set design– enhanced and supported the overall satire.

The acting was excellent, across the board. Each actor did a great job of enhancing the ridiculous tone of the play. One of the highlights of the show was a scene in which Cunegonde (played by Lauren Molina), after experiencing a fall from grace, swings from despondent to giddy and back again while being squeezed into a corset by servants. As if the physical comedy wasn’t enough, she also trills long strings of notes that accentuate her emotional state. Molina was literally pitch perfect. Although the characterizations sometimes slipped and became flat, those moments were rare, and for the most part, the actors did a fantastic job of creating the world of the play.

The supporting cast was essential in this production. Often, the biggest comedic payoffs were a result of the ensemble doing the unexpected. At one point, a group of sick beggars that had been a part of the scenery since the beginning of a scene came to life and began to sing along in a Monty Python-esque chorus, sending the audience into gales of laughter. They also provided moments of incisive satire that kept the show from being too glib. At one point, Candide goes to Lisbon, and because of a terrible earthquake, the residents of Lisbon want to burn foreigners. As the townspeople chant for blood, all of a sudden things aren’t so funny.

The staging and set design were truly what made this production unique. Zimmerman used the stage like a dollhouse, utilizing trap doors, hidden windows, suddenly appearing balconies and a sliding background to create a world where nothing– not even the floor the characters stood on– was certain.

This virtuoso staging was all the more impressive for its economy. In one beautifully simple instance, a length of thick rope attached to a pulley and strung from a window to the floor on the opposite side of the stage made the stage into a ship.

All of these elements created a world so heightened that the audience could not help but laugh; and yet, a world so like their own that they could not help but think. Like all good satire, Candide held up a mirror to the world and made the audience question their own outlook on life and ask themselves what philosophy they hold on to in order to make sense of the world.

Wonderfully acted, brilliantly staged and humorously composed, Zimmerman’s Candide is a true treat.

Candide is showing at Boston University’s Theater until October 16, 2011. Student rush tickets can be bought two hours in advance at the theater’s box office for $15 dollars. See their website for more information.