PRINCETON - Nearly six hours of 18th-century French comedy - The Figaro Plays, currently at the McCarter Theater - could feel epic. But no.
Though the servant-versus-master stories in Pierre Beaumarchais' The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro portray a world amid revolutionary transition, the touch is light, the manner is sparkling. And before you know it, these characters have given you an uproarious and useful handbook on white lies, productive deception, and the renewability of love, ending with an elegant full-cast fandango, because, in case you've forgotten, life is but a dance.
Saturday's marathon performance of both plays was also a stagecraft package so winning - from lighting design to choreography - one left wanting to return before the run ends May 4.
Written when the American and French Revolutions were in the air, these stories about the barber Figaro, who helps Count Almaviva win his wife in the first play, then keeps the count from bedding Figaro's own wife in the second, are directed by Stephen Wadsworth in period style with footlights and handsome painted drops by designer Charles Corcoran, and paced at a farcical clip by an ensemble of actors as fine as any I've seen.
Adapted by Wadsworth, the plays are translated from 18th-century French into colloquial American in ways that require no listener effort - except for the zingers, almost too numerous to take in. Some scenes are more Wadsworth than Beaumarchais; at least one is entirely invented by Wadsworth. How defensible is this? Viability trumps everything.
Even while observing how Beaumarchais uses every theatrical trick in the book, the plays are performed with an almost complete avoidance of the schtick that often goes along with mistaken identity and outrageous plot twists. Every scene is played for truth rather than comedy - and ends up being deeply funny.
For opera audiences, there's an added layer, the dialogue between the plays and how they were refracted in Rossini's Barber and Mozart's Figaro. At times, they run along parallel lines. Then you realize that Rossini's Act II is weak because he dropped one of Beaumarchais' major plot points.
Beaumarchais' Figaro is far more outspoken than Mozart's, has a huge court trial scene with too many dramatic crosscurrents even for Mozart to handle. Later, Figaro has a monologue that enters the Lenny Bruce zone - an extended rant about social injustice with only the faintest veneer of comedy. However refined the playwright looks in his portraits, he was one angry dude.
Every role has a high-wire element that the entire cast walks successfully, some more confidently than others. Though the plays take place only three years apart, not every actor is equally suited to his or her younger and older incarnations. Adam Green feels more comfortable as the nothing-to-lose Figaro of Barber, though his comic consistency as the central figure of both plays borders on superhuman. Naomi O'Connell feels too worldly for the younger Rosine but is perfect for the older version.
As her money-grubbing guardian Dr. Bartolo, the astoundingly inventive Derek Smith basically carries Barber but has plenty of comic juice left for Figaro. Luckily, Neal Bledsoe has the stage charisma to override his role as innately unsympathetic Count Almaviva.
The only mildly questionable performances were from actors who, curiously, are only in Figaro: Maggie Lacey was a bit subdued as Suzanne, while Magan Wiles was so aggressive a Cherubin as to resemble a modern-day sex addict. Which, perhaps, the character is. Here, the 18th and 21st centuries more or less merge, the main difference being the wigs.
"The Figaro Plays"
Through May 4 at the McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton.
Tickets: $20-$103. Information: 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.orgEndText