Austere Voltaire: Budget-conscious ‘Candide’ is frank and funny

Austere Voltaire: Budget-conscious ‘Candide’ is frank and funny
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A Catholic church might seem a strange place to stage French author Voltaire’s vitriolically antinomian masterpiece “Candide.” But Theater2020 makes it work, thanks to larger-than-life performances more than compensating for an obviously paltry budget.

Satire — and Voltaire’s novel, adapted here into an operetta by legendary composer Leonard Bernstein, is a blistering example of the genre — only works when it is extremely subtle or comically over-the-top. When it falls somewhere in between the extremes, it can come off as coy or even condescending.

No one seems to understand this rule better than actor Greg Horton, who plays the dual role of Voltaire and the optimistic educator Pangloss, both narrating the tale of scathing disillusionment and providing the oft-repeated motif that the characters live “in the best of all possible worlds” — which the plot flouts at every possible turn. Horton wrings every drop of comedy possible from the character, with a delivery so oily and bombastic it seems to ooze off the walls of Brooklyn Heights’s Saint Charles Borromeo Church.

The other characters, Pangloss’ young students, are drawn in the right kind of broad strokes, though none quite equals Horton’s gusto. Candide, the innocent and gullible title character, is sunny and bland, but I suspect that has more to do with the role itself than with actor Ryan Farnsworth, who brings an impressive singing ability and a childlike energy to the role. As Candide’s love interest, Cunegonde, Ellie Bensinger admirably captures the character’s mid-song mood-swings between ecstatic joy, scarcely contained rage, and utter despair. The vocal contortions she pulls off during the show’s infamously daunting arias are absolutely stunning.

The off-the-wall exuberant performances keep you from noticing how little the actors are working with. The closest thing this production has to a set is a gossamer curtain hung in front of the church’s altar, and the only props are a few chairs, a bench, some kind of wind-up bird, and a stuffed life-sized doll (don’t ask, it will make sense when you see it).

Theater2020 plays the absence of a stage to its advantage, fully incorporating the pulpit, aisles, transepts, organ loft, and even the pews of the church into the show.

A special shout-out should go to music director Ming Aldrich-Gan, who summons Bernstein’s entire orchestral accompaniment from a single piano, without even the benefit of a page-turner. The choreography is all but flawless, and the direction close to clockwork.

The story and music take a sudden serious note at the very end, but ignore it — the comedy is what you came for.

“Candide” at Saint Charles Borromeo Church [31 Sidney Pl. near Aitken Place in Brooklyn Heights. (212) 541–4684, www.theater2020.com.] Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm. Through March 9. $18.