It’s an idea that could have gone either way – Voltaire’s eternal optimist desperately tries to apply his upbeat philosophy to the misfortunes of modern -day America. Thankfully, the expertly staged, solidly entertaining FringeNYC entry Candide Americana represents the best of all possible adaptations. Kind of. As presented by the Rabbit Hole Ensemble in their characteristic minimalist mode, Candide, his philosophy teacher Dr. Pangloss, and his lady love Miss Cinnbunsa ruminate on contemporary tragedies as they experience them firsthand – Bosnia, 9/11, Katrina, The Staten Island Ferry Crash – with each event slashing a new hole in Pangloss’s cheerful worldview. Voltaire’s original novel played the naïve Candide’s dreadful journey for laughs, and Stanton Wood’s modern version doesn’t stray from the satiric tone. Almost eight years later, it’s still a delicate thing to fool around with 9/11, especially in New York, but by including it Wood drives Voltaire’s point home in a relatable way – sometimes tragedy happens randomly and it is foolish to try to see a silver lining.
Edward Elefterion’s crafty staging utilizes the performers to the maximum extent possible by relying on them to communicate place through blocking and ambient sound. Josh Sauerman is vigilantly wide-eyed as Candide, and the other six performers tackle multiple roles with plenty of charm.
If there is any fault in this artfully composed retelling, it’s that the contemporary setting doesn’t necessarily add anything to Voltaire’s original. This is not to say that our modern tragedies are in any way similar to the travails of Enlightenment Europe – only that the journey from youthful optimism to adolescent cynicism to a refined sense of cautious pragmatism will always resonate, regardless of the time and place.