Would you know the devil if you met him? And if you were the devil, what would you do if you ended up in a town where there was no innocence to corrupt?
These are a few of the questions pondered in the U.S. premiere of Ivan Cankar’s 1908 farce “Scandal In The St. Florian Valley,” playing through Sept. 30 at Victory Theatre in Grant Hill.
Translated into American English by Rawley Grau, the play is directed by someone who knows the play well: Slovenian Ivan Rupnik, a visiting artist who has acted in it more than once and who now spends part of his time in Encinitas.
Chronos Theatre has reset the play somewhere in a small American town, though from the minimalist set and costumes this program note seems more an attempt at universality than nationality.
The problem is spelled out by the Mayor (John Anderson): “Scandal has crept into St. Florian Valley. They say his name is Peter and he’s an artist. That alone is a black omen!”
But that isn’t the half of it. Peter (Bryant Hernandez) has brought along his way-too-pretty girlfriend Jacinta (Krista Bell). And who knows what disgusting behavior the two of them might be up to?
“Lewdness has fornicated with art and both have declared terrible war on our patriotic and other virtues!” declares the Mayor. And he advises the formation of a Society of Various Virtues to fight this moral menace.
The Mayor sends the town’s most innocent citizen, Schoolmaster Sviligoj, to spy on the offending pair and find out just what horrors are being committed.
If any of this sounds vaguely familiar, welcome to our world – and recall that this play was written over a century ago.
The trouble with claiming moral superiority is that there’s always somebody who knows something unsavory about you.
Many of the virtuous citizens will meet Peter soon enough – when he seeks them out, one by one, and demands hush money – for what, he never specifies.
Peter is accompanied by a red-suited man with a pinched facial expression, a telltale limp (is that one hoof instead of a foot?) and a terrible odor. This is the Devil, masquerading as French professor Concordat (David Radford), and he has a bone to pick with Peter.
Just to confuse things more, a younger Vagabond (Josh Freeman) shows up, claiming to be Peter, the orphan of St. Florian Valley.
So what is the scandal in the valley? Why are these “virtuous” patriots so easy to blackmail? I leave that for you to discover. Suffice it to say that the Devil is disgusted with the lack of work for him here – without anyone to corrupt, where’s the fun?
Cankar, regarded as the greatest writer in the Slovene language, was the first Slovenian to make a living writing. He was also a novelist, essayist and poet, but is mostly remembered for his plays, which are still frequently performed.
This script (the only translation approved by the Slovenian Ministry of Culture) is wordy rather than action-oriented, but the words are clever, the concepts worth thinking about, and Rupnik’s direction keeps the pace moving nicely. The three-act play is done in one; the runtime is about 1:45.
The cast varies from competent to excellent. In the latter category are Radford’s Devil, Anderson’s Mayor, Celeste Innocenti’s Mayor’s Wife, Hoehn’s Tax Collector and Bell’s Jacinta (though her third-act dance is a questionable addition which communicated nothing to me).
The clever script of “Scandal In The St. Florian Valley” reminds us that corruption, vice and hypocrisy are as contemporary now as they were in 1908.
And how often do you get the chance to see a Slovenian play?
“Scandal In The St. Florian Valley” plays through Sept. 30 at Victory Theater, 2558 Imperial Ave. in Grant Hill.
Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 7 pm.
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.