Everything Music and Theatre reviews The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s new production of the hilarious farce “The Bungler” (1655), French playwright Molière’s first great comedy success. Director Brian B. Crowe deftly leads a cast of nine actors and three supernumeraries in a smart performance that’s bound to tickle the intellect as much as it amuses. The F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, in Madison, is the perfect venue with no seat seemingly beyond arm’s reach of the actors, with whom visual contact catalyzes the feeling of personal involvement in this zany comedy’s action.

Sunday evening, July 9, an inexplicably undersold audience compensated with enthusiastic applause what it lacked in sheer numbers.

Servant as boss

Mascarille, dressed in Harlequin’s checkers, futilely strives to stay a step ahead of his bumbling master Lélie’s meddling and inadvertent thwarting of his successive schemes to procure the captive Célie for him. The class dynamic—straight from “commedia dell’arte”—of doltish master working at cross purposes with his mentally far-superior servant, presages what Mozart and, later, Rossini did for opera with Beaumarchais’ characters Count Almaviva and his valet, Figaro, and what Wodehouse did last century for British literature with the feckless Bertie Wooster and his all-knowing valet, Jeeves.

Fed up with all the interference, Mascarille urges the crushed Lélie, whose sword he’s pointed at himself: “Hurry up. Less talk. More suicide” and a later verbal jab: “You ought to open a fencing school—you’re forever missing the point.”

The look and feel of ‘The Bungler’

Kevin Isola as Mascarille must feel either exhilarated or else wholly knackered after each performance, seldom absent from the stage and bounding everywhere in hyperactive slapstick physical comedy.

The tall, slender Aaron McDaniel as the witless Lélie is the perfect fall guy, looking utterly ridiculous in frippery, frills, and lace ruffle anklets but otherwise gorgeous glinting pastel flocked satin brocades. Kudos to Costume Designer Paul Canada for creatively cartoonish costumes and cotton candy coiffures (Hippolyte).

The families

Drew Dix is Pandolfe, father of the title bungler. James Michael Reilly is Anselme, father of Léandre, who’s always evading Hippolyte and ever in pursuit as Lélie’s rival for Célie’s affections. Éric Hoffmann is Trufaldin, but it would spoil the fun to reveal the identity of his offspring. These veteran actors depict the spectrum of paternity, spanning sensible child-rearing to absent-mindedness to loutish absenteeism. Sam Ashdown debuts as Léandre, certainly less foppish than Lélie, but evidently suffering substance abuse.

The roles of Célie and Hippolyte could be pleasingly expanded to something more than the ciphers they are, based on the charming performances by Sophia Blum and Devin Conway, respectively. Towering over everyone and doing double duty, Danilo Ottaviani is a bit overly eager as Messenger and perfect as the Spaniard Andrès.

The Creative Team

Scenic Designer Richard Block came up with a whimsical unit set that depicts a nondescript house with a balcony that gives onto a plaza across from another residential building that later passes for an Inn. Someone uncredited came up with ingenious incidental music that sets the mood for each scene, reminiscent of Lombardy or Tuscany. Veteran Director Brian B.

Crowe keeps everything flowing nicely, which is no small feat for a text-dense comedy. Richard Wilbur’s masterful translation of rhyming French couplets into rhyming English couplets is nothing short of remarkable. In the hands of lesser actors, the rhyme scheme can come across as cutesy and tiresome, but Mr. Crowe helps everyone sustain the essential rhythm to keep quaintness from encroaching.

The Bungler,” by Molière (translated by Richard Wilbur), through July 30th, at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Madison N.J.