CANDIDE," Voltaire's satirical masterpiece, is being given hilarious treatment by Touchstone Theatre, on stage at the Theatre Project through Sunday.
The four gifted ensemble players -- Bill George, Susan Chase, Eric Beatty, Sara Zielinska -- create dozens of characters in the wink of an eye, taking the hapless Candide, a not quite confirmed optimist, on a broadly comic journey through space and time.
Voltaire's novel, published in 1764, expresses the French dramatist, historian and poet's merciless commentary on stupidly blind optimism that can serve as a catalyst for a chain of destructive, catastrophic events.
Touchstone Theatre, founded in 1981, is a regional theater with a resident acting troupe based in Bethlehem, Pa., and dedicated to presenting original dramatic and comedic works.
William Pope L. adapted the original text, and Zielinska added the pungent contemporary dialogue.
The group has set Voltaire's work somewhere between the 18th and 20th centuries. Literary purists may not appreciate this slapstick yet sophisticated version, but the general audience should enjoy the wild antics of the players.
Touchstone has taken many liberties with the classic, from the bashing comedy of the Three Stooges to the whimsy of Wheeler and Woolsey and Laurel and Hardy to more contemporary styles of wit.
Dr. Pangloss, Candide's tutor, carries to the extreme the philosophy that "all is perfect in this most perfect of all possible worlds."
Therein lies the crux of the comedy as Candide sets out to test his teacher's complacent theory. The young man picks up strange friends along the way and even finds his lost long love. But he also observes rape, hanging, massacres and other horrific events. Tortured cruelly by the Inquisition, he flees the country only to encounter an earthquake in Lisbon. Through all he maintains (with increasing difficulty) his ever hopeful ideology.
In the end, the bedraggled group finds the New World and learns that the insanity of life can best be avoided by taking action to make this the best of all possible worlds.
References to Kuwait, bombs, President Bush, the oil industry and other topical matters are cleverly woven into the piece.
The company amusingly uses toy airplanes, paper boats, a sand castle, a ladder and a child's wading pool as the main props.
"Candide" is the theater of the absurd at its most entertaining, but director Jim Calder could set a swifter pace for the action and very funny monologues, which tend to drag at times.
As the play's hero, Susan Chase (questionable casting) needs much more projection of character to become the overly cheerful, gullible, innocent young fool learning the hard ways of life. Candide is the straight man among all the other colorful characters, and his stunned, droll reactions should trigger the laughs.
There are excellent performances by Bill George as Pangloss and a very old woman of the world and Beatty in a series of deliciously malevolent roles. Zielinska is outstanding as Candide's maligned love, an evil, gnarled gnome and several other delightful characterizations.