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What's next, Figaro?

"Figaro Gets a Divorce" asks what happened after Beaumarchais' 1778 opus "The Marriage of Figaro." The barber and his wife, the lovely Susanna, have fled a revolution to remain in the service of the Count and Countess Almaviva. The characters seem to have traveled from the bloody world of the French Revolution to one that looks like the years between the two World Wars.

It's almost as if Odon von Horvath, the Hungarian-born German writer who wrote this imagined sequel, was saying to Beaumarchais, "You think you know bloody? We'll show you bloody." The play was written in 1938, so von Horvath was pretty sure another war was coming, even if he could never have imagined its horrors.

But the darkness is deceptive. "Figaro Gets a Divorce," in a translation by Roger Downey, plays more as farce than anything else, although there are elements of existential drama, comedy and even tragedy. Downey's translation is accessible enough, dispensing altogether with the rhythms of the Comédie Française.

It was the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's reading for the spring, presented Thursday morning to a half-full Angus Bowmer Theatre. OSF readings grab attention in part because this year's reading has a way of becoming a full production down the road, although reading coordinator Lue Morgan Douthit called it "a floating craps game" as to when.

"Boy, did we dig in the back of the file cabinet to find this one," Douthit said to laughs.

The readings are often somewhat obscure classics from the past being considered for revival, directed by the OSF's Phil Killian Directing Fellow, usually a younger director early in his or her career (this year it's Gisela Cardenias).

"Figaro Gets a Divorce" mixes up the late 18th century and the 1930s to ask questions about fascism, loyalty and love. Douthit suggested it might be done in the style of Tom Stoppard's fast-and-flashy "On the Razzle," which the OSF produced last year in the Bowmer.

Fleeing the Revolution and afoot in a scary wood ("One always hears footsteps in a forest at night," blusters Tony DeBruno's Count), the Count and Countess (Dee Maaske), Figaro (Anthony Heald) and Susanna (Vilma Silva) are captured by border guards. The peasants are revolting, they're executing the nobles, a barmaid is pregnant, and Susanna wants a baby. The Countess has a nervous breakdown, and the Count is forced to hock the pearls.

He is convinced it will all blow over. He is a fool.

As the Count runs through his remaining fortune unable to face the truth, Figaro realizes there's nothing for it but to leave the Almavivas. Fortunately there's a barber shop in Haggleburg (population 3,800), a nowhere town in the mountains.

"Freedom means I'm free to play the hypocrite," Figaro announces.

"Haggleburg is hell," Susanna declares.

Figaro becomes a social-climbing petite bourgeois fool who gives rotten haircuts. Susanna has just about had it. The townspeople despise Figaro as an immigrant and a gypsy, and now they think he's been cuckholded.

Von Horvath has questions to ask about public affairs, personal relationships and the changing role of women. As well as more mundane ones: Will Figaro see the light? Will Susanna care? Will the Revolution be televised? Will the haircuts improve?

The era von Horvath was writing about is a dark one for such comic chops, and the thing almost wants the hand of a Mel Brooks to pull off the marriage. Thursday's reading was a bit flat, almost as if the actors weren't quite sure what genre they were in.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.