[This is the unedited version of this review; a much abbreviated version appeared in City Paper on June 24, 1999.]

A Flea in her Ear: People's Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road., Malvern, through June 27 (160 644-3500).

Cary M. Mazer

There was an audible gasp in the audience the night I saw Georges Feydeau's 1907 farce, A Flea in her Ear, at People's Light & Theatre.

A quarrelsome Spaniard (Paul Meshejian) had just been shown a billet- doux from an anonymous admirer addressed to the stodgy businessman, Victor Chandebise (David Ingram), which Chandebise has passed on to the person he thinks it was actually directed to - his friend, the elegantly dressed lady's man Tournel (Peter DeLaurier) - and which was really written by Chandebise's wife Constance (Marcia Saunders) to trap her husband in what she believes to be an adulterous liaison ... which, incidentally, she is mistaken about, because it is not Chandebise but his nephew Camille (Kevin Bergen) who has been leaving his suspenders at the Hotel Pussycat, where he is having an affair with a chambermaid (Jackson Gay).

Constance, to disguise her identity as the author of the billet-doux, has asked her friend Lucie (Kathryn Petersen), the Spaniard's wife, to write the letter. And so, the night that I saw the play, the audience suddenly anticipated that the Spaniard will recognize his wife's handwriting, think that she is having an affair with Tournel, and will follow her to the Hotel Pussycat, where everyone else - including the butler (Ian Merrill Peakes) married to the chambermaid, and the suavely lascivious doctor (Stephen Novelli) - seems to be headed, and where, no doubt, chaos will follow. And at that point the audience doesn't even know yet about the revolving bed in Camille's favorite room at the Hotel Pussycat, or that a drunken porter at the hotel is the spitting image of (and played by the same actor as) Chandebise.

Are you following all this? Don't worry. The whole point of farce is to set up as many compromising positions, misunderstood intentions and mistakes of identity as possible, in order to create, when the action really gets ripping, as much of a comic whirlwind of near misses and slamming doors as can be imagined. Even theater scholars can't tell Feydeau's plays apart ("A Flea in her Ear,'' one asks, "that's the one with the revolving bed, the porter who looks like the husband, and the young man with cleft palate, isn't it? Or am I confusing it with The Lady from Maxim's?''). All you need to know about the play, or about the production, is that it all depends on the precision of the timing and the elegance of the style; and that the timing here is very precise, and that the style of Tazewell Thompson's production is very elegant indeed.

There is one more thing you should know. For reasons known only to Thompson and his cast, all of the actors speak in heavy French accents, a blend of Jacques Cousteau and Inspector Clouseau (except the Spaniard, of course, who sounds like Ricardo Montalban). This means that many of the jokes (were they in the translation/adaptation by Jean-Marie Besset and Mark O'Donnell, or were they developed by the cast?) come more from funny accents than from character. And it also means that the director defeats his own stated intention, in his program notes, to anchor the farce in the reality of character and events.

Still, the production is gorgeous to look at, both from Donald Eastman's set (the rectilinear ivory-and-gold Chandebise drawing room giving way to the flocked wallpaper, angular walls and myriad doors of the Hotel Pussycat) and from the color palate of Jeffrey Fender's costumes (Constance's dress is lavender, Lucie's is apricot with turquoise highlights, and the pale hue of Tournel's trousers can only be described as the color of pistachio ice cream).

And People's Light was able to cast even the smaller parts from the ranks of some of its finest actors: only when we get to the hotel pussycat do we meet the surly owner (Mark Lazar), his aged father (Louis Lippa), his ex-courtesan wife (Alda Cortese, dressed in iridescent chartreuse harem pants and a turban), a saucy chambermaid (Alice Gatling, with a West Indian accent), and a horny Englishman in his underwear (Leonard Haas, with a Bertie Wooster accent). There are wonderful actorly moments, despite the accents: I single out only Kathryn Petersen's body language when she describe's her husband's sexual prowess. And David Ingram makes the most of the virtuoso quick changes and transformations of his double role, and, as Chandebise, does what he does best: convey a sense of affronted dignity.

You'll need to decide for yourself whether the accents propel the play into a world of pure, liberating, comedy, or just make it all a silly exercise in funny voices.