Arts and Entertainment

Franklin, Figaro, firearms and farce

Deana Duncan is Madame Vergennes, who is wooed by Dave Gignac’s Pierre Beaumarchais in “Franklin and Figaro.” - Jason Dittmer photo
Deana Duncan is Madame Vergennes, who is wooed by Dave Gignac’s Pierre Beaumarchais in “Franklin and Figaro.”
— image credit: Jason Dittmer photo

Pierre Beaumarchais, the great Parisian playwright, is having a very bad day.

Actually, it’s more like a very bad month, but the poor sod is only trying to help the famously famous Ben Franklin and the American colonies find their freedom by orchestrating a black-market arms deal.

Alas, things don’t go as planned for the unlucky revolutionary and ultimately spin wildly out of control.

Upon this uncontrolled crux is where Kristina Sutherland’s play, “Franklin and Figaro,” perches itself and welcomes the audience to join the ride.

The play opens at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley on Friday, June 12.

Set in 1776, “Franklin and Figaro” begins with Franklin’s legendary arrival in France around the same time Beaumarchais was working on his play, “The Barber of Seville.”

As a playwright, actor and director who also majored in history, Sutherland said she relishes the historical research that spurs on most of her ideas for plays.

After becoming intrigued by the life and times of the innovative Franklin and his countless, famous flirtations with women, she decided a comedy was in order.

Having stumbled upon a book entitled “The Great Improvisation” by Stacey Schiff, Sutherland said she hit gold with the story of how Franklin persuaded France to ally with the colonies during the Revolutionary War.

“Within this fascinating tale, I found Pierre Beaumarchais’ strange life story in the mix and it was love at first read,” Sutherland recalled.

“Although mostly known as the playwright of ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ and ‘The Barber of Seville,’ Beaumarchais was, among other things, a spy and undercover agent, a black- market arms dealer, a charming liar and a handsome, overconfident man who was always burning the candle at both ends. He conducted some of his arms dealing while in rehearsals for a remount of ‘The Barber of Seville,’” Sutherland said.

“I thought this was just too good to be true! It was as though the comedy gods had handed me a plot on a platter. Pierre became the perfect anti-hero to benevolent Benjamin and ‘Franklin and Figaro’ was born.”

Sutherland took liberties with the historical facts and has created her own version of history through farce. Although most of its characters are based on real people of the period, the play is contemporary in its language and follows the tradition of farce with fast-paced high-jinks, somewhat naughty puppets, shadow animation, cartoon-like chase scenes and characters who sometimes find themselves in compromising situations.

The play was produced in 2007 by Macha Monkey Productions, a Seattle theater company Sutherland co-founded eight years ago which is dedicated to creating “fearless, funny, female theatre.”

The name of the company was inspired by a friend who lost his life in the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 in January 2000.

Sutherland (who was invited on the trip but had to decline due to play rehearsals) had six friends who lost their lives in the crash, including one who had told them the story of a memorable spider monkey — independent and wild — whom he befriended while living in South America and had nicknamed “macha monkey.”

“After that crash, I decided I had to do what I wanted to do, that life was too fragile not to. I was inspired to do what I want in life, and not do some meaningless administrative job that I hated,” Sutherland said.

“We started a theater company the way we wanted to do it; fearless, funny and female, kind of like my friend’s monkey.”

By “we,” Sutherland means she and her writing partner Desiree Prewitt, with whom she has co-created three plays including “The Cowgirl Play,” “R (The Swashbuckling Tale of Anne Bonny and Mary Read)” and “Live Girls Do Elektra.”

The team is currently at work on “Nancy, Frank and Joe,” a play based on the Nancy Drew mystery books and the publisher’s daughters, Harriet and Edna Stratemeyer, who inherited the syndicate in the 1930s and were two of the first female CEOs.

When she is not busy writing, producing, directing or acting, Sutherland teaches playwriting through the company’s outreach program, and also is the education associate for the Young Playwrights Program at Seattle’s Act Theater.

Sutherland said she uses her own love of history to create theater that may spark something a child didn’t know was there.

“I want to reach the kids who aren’t getting it from the pages of the history books,” she said. “I also want to cultivate an enjoyment of theater in them.”

Beyond the classroom, Sutherland is constantly cultivating her own passion for all things historical and funny, and wants to share that passion with the world.

To that end, she would like to publish “Franklin and Figaro” and to see it out on the theater circuit.

“The situation that Pierre gets himself into is one that everyone can relate to,” Sutherland said.

“Ya know, burning the candle at both ends and getting stressed out. And who hasn’t sold guns on the black market to a revolutionary country?”

Ultimately, “Franklin and Figaro” is about one man’s zany pursuit of liberté, fraternité and cold, hard cash.

The cast of “Franklin and Figaro” features Bob Atkinson, Tom Churchill, Ed Cornachio, Patricia Duff, Deana Duncan, David Gignac, Dave Mayer, L. Bennett Nolen and Katie Woodzick.

In addition to Sutherland as writer/director, the creative team includes Cally Beers as the stage manager, costumes by Valerie Johnson, original music composed by Rick Miller with arrangements by Matthew Tevenan and played by James Hinkley, set design by Jason Dittmer, lighting design by Ann Deacon, Larry Woolworth on properties, puppet design by Sann Hall and choreography by Jennifer Bondelid.

The show runs at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, June 12 through June 27 and at 2 p.m. Sundays through June 21.

Tickets range in price from $12 to $16. Click here, or call 221-8268 or 800-638-7631.

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