When we first meet Lamendin (James Riordan), the antihero of Jules Romains’Dorongoo, he’s only kept from leaping off the Moselle Bridge into the Canal St. Martin in Paris by his friend Benin (Mitch Greenberg). But Benin’s sending him to Miguel Rufisque (George Morfogen) a psychotherapist with a very un-Freudian way of treating the suicidally inclined results in quite a transformation. The down in the dumps, failed architect-painter sheds the shabby jacket that his friend says would only go with is a pair of harem pants for more sartorial splendor. And as his appearance changes, so does his persona. From not knowing what to do other than end it all, Lamendin becomes an assured and persuasive huckster, as likely to sell you that bridge than jump off it.
As Romains’ Dr. Knock was a farcical send-up of pseudo-science, so Donogoo takes on business. In this case ambition and uninhibited by truth imagination combine to transform fraud into fact. Lambedin’s scheme works. A marketing campaign fires up investors, pioneers and prospectors everywhere to seek their fortunes in a place that Lambedin and his cohorts count they will make more than a name on a map.
But though Romains (1885-1972) was regarded as Paris’s 20th Century Moliere and was once as popular as Shaw, his plays are rarely if ever produced nowadays. That is, until the Mint Theater, that invaluable retriever of long neglected plays, recruited Gus Kaikkonen, one of its most gifted collaborators, to rescue Romains from the cemetery of forgotten playwrights.
Last season Kaikkonen expertly and amusingly translated and directed the satire about the charlatan doctor unable to look anyone in the eye without feeling an often useless diagnosis coming on. The Mint’s many loyal patrons will also remember his splendid direction of the best and most enduring play about a financial scandal, Harley Granville Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance. So who better to introduce Mint audiences to Donogoo’s cynical take on shady business practices along with pseudo-scientific therapies.
Kaikkonen’s translation has an easy contemporary flavor. While free of jarring modernism, the text nevertheless features a number of sly references to underscore that there’s nothing dated about financial profiteering and marketing strategies that promise more than they can deliver. The skulduggery we witness is no more outlandish, but a lot funnier, than the more recent financial crisis.
Unlike Dr. Knock which worked without extensive scenery and with a manageable eight member cast, Donogoo is a dauntingly big play with more than sixty characters and twenty-three scenes in different locations. Together with Roger Hanna and Price Johnston, Kaikkonen has met what would be a challenge even for a large organizations. They’ve created all those tableaux with digital technology and only a few actual props. This mostly projected scenery is not just a smart solution for handling multiple locations economically and efficiently, but is brilliantly and entertainingly done. The digitilazed scenery takes us all over the world and features moving trains, cafes, a San Francisco Chinese food automat and, ultmately, the Brazilian jungle where Donogoo is supposed to be.
This is one of the best and most inventive uses of projections as scenery that I’ve ever seen. It’s as if this play has been waiting for modern technology to do it justice. What’s more, the staging ratchets up the comedy and comes close to stealing the show. The sound, lighting and costume designers add to the excellence of the production values, with Sam Fleming’s costumes especially apt and amusing.
Of course, with all these characters, casting has its own special demands. This too is ably dealt with. A baker’s dozen of actors, all of whom except James Riordan’s Lemandin and Ross Bickell’s opportunistic bank director Margajat, take on the play’s huge array of passerbys, swindled stockholders and swindlers.
Riordan handles his Lemandin’s many permutations without missing a line. He segues smoothly from insecure sadsack to audacious scoundrel. If the laughs one expects from an over the top farce like this don’t always land, it may be that Kaikkonen hasn’t propelled the action forward at quite the called for frenetic pace.
Though the set-up taking Lemandin from aborted suicide to execution of the quackish therapist’s prescripton takes a while to ignite, the comedy builds as the unsubstantiated stock offering draws in investors throughout the world and eventually lands them in Donogoo, or rather the Donogoo to be. As always, the Mint offers audiences a rare chance to see a fascinatingly staged play by a once famous but now forgotten playwright.