Candide of California or, Optimism Based on the novella by Voltaire. Adapted and directed by Brian Katz. Custom Made Theatre, The Gough Street Playhouse (formerly The Next Stage), attached to the historic Trinity Church, 1620 Gough Street (at Bush), San Francisco.

CANDIDE OF CALIFORNIA at Custom Made is colorful, exuberant, bizarre, raucous.

The production history of Leonard Bernstein’s comic opera adaptation of Voltaire’s satirical novella Candide that had a pitiful two month run on Broadway in December 1956 has had multiple revisions. In fact, the original libretto is not available even after such illustrious names as Lillian Hellman, John LaTouche, Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim others had a crack at it. Of the multiple variations, the production by the National Theatre in London elicited the accolade, “They finally got it right!” This time around, Custom Made Artistic Director, Brian Katz, directs and adapts Voltaire’s tale for our time suggesting, with tongue-in-cheek that California is the best possible place to begin Candide’s modernized journey. Katz almost “got it right.” Katz directs with panache using broad strokes fortifying the line in act one “Voltaire was stoned when he wrote his novella!”

The play opens with the Narrator (Richard Wenzel) and Candide’s (Matt Gunnison) introduction and we are transported to Sacramento where Life is Happiness in the Governor’s mansion. How fortuitous for Katz that the sexual scandal for our former Governor Schwarzwenegger broke two days before the play’s opening. In the original Voltaire story, Candide is the ill illegitimate nephew of a German baron. Candide, the baron’s daughter Cunégonde (Caitlin Dissinger), and Paquette (Jessica Rudholm) , the maid, are tutored by scholar Dr. Pangloss (Travis Kammet) who insists that we are living in the Best of All Possible Worlds justifying starvation and hate (war) as necessary for population control.

Candide, hopelessly in love with Cunegonde, is banished and conscripted into the army where he, for the first time, has a taste of war brutality. In the meantime, Cunegonde is captured and ravished by her captors. Formal Christian religion takes it lumps when Candide meets a Man of God with an invitation to prepare for “The Rapture” that will take place on May 21. Somehow, the ever optimistic metaphysical philosopher Dr. Pangloss comes back into the script and through circumlocution justifies plague as a “good thing.”

Our hero has multiple airplane rides, cleverly staged by Katz, and on one of these trips his plane crashes in Kabul, where there is a devastating earthquake, (all for the good, of course). There is even absolution for poor Cundegunde’s treatment as the sex slave of three religious men, a Sunni, a Shiite and a Rabbi…. Katz is an equal opportunity skewer of religion . . . or is it Voltaire?). When our traveling troupe is beset by armed marauders there is the scathing satirical line something to the effect, “We were protected by our defenders who dropped to their knees!” During their journey, our docile horrified Candide kills a couple of people . . . and why not, they were going to kill him.

Before the first act abruptly ends (because the almost dead Pangloss has to go to the bathroom), we meet major characters: the half-ass Old Woman (AJ Davenport) who has saved from cannibals by giving up half of her buttocks. After this show, the sale of rump steak will surely decline. Then there the man with no balls and drug lords somewhere in South America.

The action and dialog in act one is hysterical, scatological, and confusing but act two puts everything in to relative perspective. A ¼ human and ¼ Irish metaphysical Satanist ( Stefin Collins) enters the story line and Lady Ga-Ga makes it into the script before our trusty group heads to the Antarctic, discovers El Dorado 500 feet under the ice, become rich from the “yellow mud” and jewels they are given. When they jet to New York City their encounter with Homeland Security strips them of some of their riches, and Paquette, whom we have not seen since act one is found plying her trade as a prostitute infecting her clients, as she did Pangloss, with syphilis. Each major character gets to tell his tale of woe, with each tale being more horrendous then the previous. “Enough”, suggests the Narrator who to Pangloss’s consternation skips chapters in the narrative “because the audience wants to get home.”

By this time, if you did not know the story, you will be confused. You will appreciate that the show runs a short 2 hours including the 15-minute intermission. Once again, Custom Made has great production values with a three level, three-sided stage and a very adept cast. With the exception of the Narrator and Candide, the other five actors play a plethora of roles and Katz has cleverly taken a page from previous stagings, placing trunks on strategic parts of the stage from which they extract costumes. Just as the original adaptation of Voltaire’s classic needed adjusting, so does this world premiere version. However, like every other Custom Made production I have reviewed this Candide of California is worth a visit.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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