Optimism! Or Voltaire’s Candide

by John Stoltenberg

There’s gotta be a mischievous alchemist lurking in the church building that is Spooky Action Theater‘s current haunt, because down in the basement there a 250-year-old French novel has been transmuted into a giddily playful and energetic romp of a show—in rhymed couplets, no less—that is two and a half hours of nonstop serious fun.

Well, maybe the adapter, TJ Edwards, deserves some credit. His rhymes propel the tale with  zinger after zinger.

Oh, and maybe I should mention the director, Michael Chamberlin. His dazzling conception was to stage the play in the round, like a boisterous commedia dell’arte.

Oh, gosh, can’t forget the cast of nine. Ryan Alan Jones gives a virtuoso performance as Candide, with a physicality that astounds as he seems to dance even through stage fights. Rosemary Regan as the Old Woman delivers a poignant monolog with a passion and power we didn’t see coming. The others also beguile in all their diverse guises: Adoeye, Michael Kevin Darnall, Patricia Lynn, Jessica Shearer, Gregory Stuart, Ryan Tumulty, and John Tweel.

And the design—set, costume, sound, lighting—and the hilariously silly cardboard props. Oh dear, maybe it wasn’t alchemy after all.

But the truly amazing thing is, this delightful entertainment has a point. It’s a very serious point, actually, as was Voltaire’s—about the dubious durability of optimism. You know, that hopey changey thing? And how the pileup of horrible things that happen to people can give even the most inveterate Pollyanna pause?

After the fun of the show was over (well, a little bit during), I began reflecting on how Voltaire’s framing of this dilemma has some darn profound contemporary resonance. He takes dead aim at a broad swath of villains—the secular and sacred powers that have allied to oppress and victimize—and he ruthlessly exposes their cruelty. Voltaire also lays bare men’s systematic sexual violence against women, as one by one the female characters give graphic report, and he presents their violation as being no less despicable than men’s violence against other men. All this the guileless Candide bears witness to. And his heady optimism is, understandably, sorely tested.

I have to credit this production for more than its theatricality. With extraordinary verve and nerve, this production revives Voltaire’s stark critique of men’s inhumanity to women and other men. And in the process, it challenges us to be mindful that we do not fall for any optimism that opts for obliviousness.