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Stateside With Rosalea: A Flea In Her Ear

I have become obsessed with San Jose, or Santa Jojo Jo as I am sure she is really called. It is she who lured away NBC television from San Francisco and now trumpets her victory from a transmitter atop Mt Loma Prieta, disconcertingly just out of reach for 200,000 Bay Area viewers. "Let them eat cable," she pouts through a lacy veil of snowy phosphorous when the disgruntled write to the paper complaining about it.

This isn't the first time her peninsula envy has gotten the best of her. Back in 1989 she was so jealous that teams from San Francisco and the East Bay were playing off for the baseball world series that she had a temper tantrum and stamped her little foot so hard that the very stadium where the teams were playing in Oakland trembled, bridges collapsed, and fires raged in San Francisco's Marina district for days. Well, OK. Maybe it was her sweetheart San Andreas who did that but it's her fault too!

Hussy that she is, I just had to check her out and in a break in the stormy weather on New Year's Eve day I went on Caltrain's double decker commuter train down the peninsula to San Jose. If you're visiting San Francisco and have a day to spare, I recommend that trip. It costs about five bucks each way and takes only a couple of hours, but you pass through such a cross-section of commercial and residential landscapes you get an excellent "back yard" glimpse of how people live and shop in the USA. Something you'll never get going by car on mall to mall freeways.

A billion dollars was recently spent on San Jose's downtown, lending it the air of New Plymouth during the 80s' gas and oil boom but with the volume notched up to 11. The downtown is easy to walk around and has a nice light-rail loop, it's clean and safe, and there is a free shuttle from the railway station. Downtown attractions include museums of art, textiles and technology, as well as a children's discovery museum. Further afield is History Park. San Jose is the 11th largest city in the US and the largest in Northern California, with 900,000 residents.

Over the Christmas-NY holiday season the central plaza is turned into a winter wonderland of Christmas trees decorated by local businesses, schools, and community groups. The handwritten messages and homemade decorations lend warmth and human scale to a city centre that is almost antiseptic in its newness, and far too grand and bland in the size and architecture if its many Silicon Valley corporate headquarters. There are older buildings as well - San Jose was the first civil settlement in California, springing up in 1777 to provide food for the many nearby forts. The humble Peralta Adobe houses the story of the area's settlement, just four blocks away from the headquarters of Adobe Systems Inc.

But it was neither the history nor the innovation of San Jose that lured me back there this weekend. It was a play. A farce to be exact - in fact, the mother of all farces - written by someone whose name was once synonymous with particularly bad theatre, Georges Feydeau. It was performed by and in the San Jose Repertory Theatre. The building was part of that billion-dollar renovation and it is beautifully suited to its purpose. "A perfectly pitched balcony supplies the ideal balance of intimacy and comfort", the SF Chronicle once said - presumably referring to the auditorium and not to some wanton's silicon charms.

The theatre is comfortable with good leg room and what looked to me - from my vantage point in the front row - a good view from every seat. It was a stroke of good luck that got me my front row seat. I hadn't reserved so was put on a long list for standing room only, but several patrons didn't turn up so all of us SRO's got seats after all. "A Flea in Her Ear" was written in 1907 and its staging utlises the traditional proscenium arch and two flats with a number of strategically placed doors and other methods of egress in keeping with the fundamental mechanics of farce - rapid entrances and exits.

Of which there are over 290 in this play. No farce would be complete without a confusion of identities, in this case between the main character and a look-alike porter of a hotel that rents rooms by the hour. Several characters either have a speech impediment or speak a language other than English, and quite a few of the laughs are gained from European rivalries such as the French decrying Spanish wine, and the Spanish decrying French perfume. Slapstick abounds, and, of course there is the core theme of marital infidelity, both real and imagined.

In farce timing is everything, and by and large the cast got it right on the dot, and was quickly forgiven if they didn't - as happened when a revolving bed appeared with its new recumbents a tad before Tournel, the gigolo, turned his back to it. Actually you didn't have time to even think about such things because the second act is so frenetic, with so many characters getting so confused about so many things, that you barely have time to catch your breath between laughs. The finale of this act was a triumph of activity and confusion, which the director - John McCluggage - said, at an after-show discussion, was choreographed to 20 seconds of music. He'd been prepared to extend the music to 40 seconds, but the cast got it right at the first rehearsal.

And what a great cast, the experience and awards of every one of them taking up several column inches in the programme notes. They were from both the east and west coasts and all had experience in television and film as well as in the theatre. Eighteen people took the final bow, and most of them came back on stage after the show to participate in the audience discussion. Asked about the constraints of farce, Karole Foreman - who plays the pivotal role of the friend of the woman who believes she is being cheated on - said that farce requires "much more concentration, much more focus, because so many people are depending on you". "There's not a lot of room for improv once rehearsal is over," concurred Jennifer Fagundes, who played the maid.

The amount of money available to SJ Rep was evident in the opulent motorised sets and in the beautiful costumes - not just evidenced on stage but in the concepts created by their top-notch designers. The play's director and the artistic director of the Rep had both wanted to do "Flea" for more than 20 years, so it was a dream come true for them to have the theatre and the talent available for this holiday production, whose final performance is tonight.

But despite all the money that was spent, my favourite part was a very simple one. Instead of having a full set of curtains at the front of the stage, a semi-transparent white screen was dropped in - just wide enough to accommodate black and white text graphics reminiscent of the movies of that era. In French and then in English the audience was asked to turn off cellphones and "unwrap cough drops now".

Lea Barker
Sunday, 6 January 2001

See for California attractions.

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