Theater Review: Kansas City Actors Theatre’s The Pests

Kansas City Actors Theatre's production of The Pests/Photo by Brian Paulette

In Kansas City Actors Theatre’s The Pests, all Eraste wants to do is meet up with his beloved. And all anybody else wants to do is detain him. 

The play, which runs through January 30 at the City Stage in Union Station, was translated and adapted by UMKC professor Felicia Londré from Moliere’s 1661 comédie-ballet Les Fâcheux. It’s part of a three-year, city-wide festival celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of the playwright’s birth.

In KCAT’s production, directed by Matt Schwader, two women demand Eraste’s judgment on the best quality in a lover. Hunters and card players want to grouse over recent losses, and a pedant tries to use Eraste’s proximity to the king to declare a polemic on poorly punctuated shop signs. They are all “pests,” archetypes of the annoying people one might meet in 17th-century French society, all trying to use Eraste for their own ends while he continues to miss his romantic rendezvous.

Interspersed with the action, we get dance interludes that are a mashup of baroque and hip hop. Georgianna Londré Buchanan’s costumes play especially well in these sequences. They too are a mashup, combining hallmarks of 17th-century fashion—breeches, brocade and long, curly wig—with modern touches like bedazzled gloves and a camo-patterned vest.

The actors lean into the silliness of their roles without going over the top. JT Nagle drew laughs as La Montagne, Eraste’s beleaguered valet. Vi Tran brings a manic energy to the musical sequences and his cameos as a foppish composer and a pyramid schemer. As Eraste himself, Jake Walker is a winning presence as the exasperated straight man who’s just as self-absorbed and clueless as the pests he can’t get away from.

Londré began her translation on a whim during the Christmas break before the pandemic—translating a few pages of Les Fâcheux, available in English only from a Restoration-era translation. She talked about the project with her husband, who encouraged her to complete the project. She finished the translation by that July—adding contemporary vocabulary and allusions as they presented themselves to her. “Translating verse is for me a bit like going into a trance, so it inevitably becomes partly my voice,” she says.

Londré’s translation updates the dialogue, but like the original, it’s in verse. For the most part, the actors strike the right balance between hitting the rhymes and maintaining believable dialogue and comedic timing, although a few of the slant rhymes felt a little forced. 

Unlike a farce, where the tension relentlessly rises over the course of the action, the plot of The Pests is episodic—a pest enters, interrupts Eraste, then moves on. The stakes don’t escalate until the end, which culminates in a stage battle and a wedding, like most classical comedies.

As an introduction (or re-introduction) of local audiences to a classic, non-Anglophone playwright, The Pests does an admirable, if slight, job. It is, to borrow a word from the production’s description, a trifle. But a délicieux one.

For showtimes and tickets go here.

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