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THEATER REVIEW Puff: Believe It or Not
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2017-12-06

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Playwright: Eugene Scribe, translated by Ranjit Bolt

At: Remy Bumppo Theatre at The Greenhouse, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-404-7336; RemyBumppo.org; $42.50-$52.50. Runs through: Jan. 7, 2018

You've driven 500 miles to meet someone. When your car breaks down, the very person you've come to meet magically stops to help you.

Your twin brother, MIA in Afghanistan for 10 years, suddenly appears and wants his old job and girlfriend back—but they're yours now.

A date, innocently carved on a tree in childhood, proves you're older than your wicked cousin and, therefore, true heir to the family fortune, so you can marry your dreamboat.

Such improbabilities were the meat-and-potatoes of 19th-century popular theater, endlessly recycled in clockwork plots revolving around dark secrets, lost or stolen documents, the threat of ruin, coincidence, a long-lost relative, etc. Eventually these conventions grew so hoary that Oscar Wilde satirized them in The Importance of Being Earnest ( say, the coincidence of best friends Algernon and John being long-lost brothers ).

Even so, in masterful hands such mechanical plots could be invested with wit, style and a whiff of social satire, and no one was a greater master than prolific French playwright Eugene Scribe ( 1791-1861 ), who authored or co-authored 400 works for theater, opera and ballet. He didn't invent the conventions—Shakespeare used them 200 years earlier and they weren't new then—but he perfected them as no one before or since, and he gave the form its name: the well-made play ( piece bien faite ).

This production of Puff: Believe It Or Not is a rare chance to see a Scribe play, perhaps one of his wittiest. As directed by Nick Sandys, the rapid plot twists and turns both hold water and also amuse. It's a handsome production, too, especially Rachel Lambert's rich ( even gaudy ) costumes. Admittedly, the characters are shallow so that any psychological truth is coincidental—emotions are as mechanical as the plot—but that doesn't prevent Puff from being fun.

It takes place in mid-19th century Paris and concerns the stock market, authorship, plagiarism, public reputation, social standing and money. It ends with the lovers united, having overcome barriers of selfish financial interest, false pride, blatant self-promotion and that outmoded commodity called honor. The title refers to publicity—puffery—based on exaggerations, half-truths and outright lies which dominated French society then as it dominates our own society today. The play's wise, unflappable father figure ( David Darlow ) explains such lies "are for the greater good of society and the capitalist system," creating "a market in falsehood which no one believes and everyone uses to his own advantage." Sounds pretty modern, eh?

Besides Darlow, the fine ensemble cast features Christopher Sheard as a self-serving Count, Kelsey Brennan as his female equal and Netta Walker and Joshua Moaney as the handsome lovers among others.

Puff is a rare opportunity and a good show.


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