Backstage: Some serious work goes into a farce

Liisa Ivary is directing David Ives’ version of Georges Feydeau’s “A Flea in Her Ear,” opening Wednesday, May 3, at Ashland High School. There’s a cast of 20 student actors and a good deal of technical support from Ivary’s colleagues at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, including fight director U. Jonathan Toppo.

Ivary spent seven seasons in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s acting company. She has also performed in Shakespeare Festivals and regional repertory theaters all over the nation. She recently directed “Annapurna” for Oregon Stage Works. We met one afternoon at Noble Coffee Roasting in Ashland.

LI: This is something I wanted to do, because it’s important for these talented acting students to be mentored by OSF veterans, showing them style — and teaching them precision, timing and how to physically commit to a style that is split-second and dangerous.

It’s a large cast. It’s a lot of language and a lot of fight moves: kicks, punches, chases, slaps, rolls and jumps — every kind of slapstick; but it has to be timed perfectly, with intricate threading of props and costumes, because it’s a play of mistaken identity. It’s setting the style, the world and staying consistent.EH: What makes a good actor?

LI: I think it’s somebody that is curious, fearless of appearance, willing to surrender vanity, willing to make adjustments to embrace a story and unafraid to explore the warts (the underbelly) that we have. Good actors are malleable enough to use their bodies as instruments: they can adjust to serve a story. We’re all storytellers, and I think that people need stories.

EH: Tell me about “A Flea in Her Ear.”

LI: Set in Paris in the summer of 1915, this is the mother of all farces; it’s the one that started them. They say, “Farce is tragedy plus speed.”

This is a particularly fun story for today. It’s very political, but it’s removed enough that it’s a reprieve in this politically charged season. It’s a play where people who have power can essentially do whatever they want. It’s a play of very rigid castes — men’s roles vs. women’s roles. These are very real issues that are being looked at in a way where you’re encouraged to laugh at yourself, instead of making a comment on it.

This is a kind of vacation from anxiety. At the core, you have archetypal characters. You’re watching people who are making mountains out of mole hills. It’s about what happens when there’s miscommunication. The ensuing mistaken identities and hilarity, when everybody keeps trying to “fix it,” just keeps getting worse and worse.

EH: How do you create comedy?

LI: With comedy, it’s often the trivial that is made important. It’s “I’m going to pick this little battle. This is the hill I’m going to die on.” But it’s not life and death. That’s where we identify and see the humor. Once you recognize and see yourself, you can laugh.

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