Best of all possible worlds: Rough and Tumble does `Candide’

Leon Gertzen (left), Louise Chegwidden (center) and Carolyn Doyle whip up some satiric comedy in the Rough and Tumble production of Candide, Len Jenkin’s take on the Voltaire classic. Photos by Sharon Wharton

When Cliff Mayotte mentions to people that his company, Rough and Tumble, is doing Candide, the inevitable response is: “Oh, I love the music!”

Problem is Mayotte and crew are not doing the troubled Bernstein musical. They’re doing Len Jenkin’s adaptation of Voltaire’s classic tale.

“No, this is not the musical,” Mayotte says. “This is the version done at the Guthrie Theatre and the one Carey Perloff directed at Classic Stage Company before her ACT days.”

In 1998 (four years after R&T’s founding), Mayotte produced Jenkin’s My Uncle Sam.

“Reception to that play wasn’t all that great,” Mayotte says. “But I felt really strongly about his work. Now here’s the bizarre part. I was education director at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and one of my jobs was sorting the script library. I found a manuscript version of Candide by Len Jenkins that had been sent to Sharon Ott years ago. I had always been a fan of the novel, and I loved the idea of Candide and Len Jenkins. I loved it and put it on the pile of things to do someday.”

The R&T method is a fairly slow one. In 2005, the company began to concentrate in earnest on Candide and did some workshop performances at the Temescal Art Gallery in Oakland. “We kicked the tires on it in public,” Mayotte says. “It worked really well. We were getting ready to announce it when another play, 43 Plays for 43 Presidents, fell into our laps.”

Eventually Candide floated to the top. The Mayotte-directed production begins performances Aug. 29 at the Berkeley City Club.

“The funny thing is that Candide has been in the news a lot lately, with people quoting Voltaire and what he said about religious fundamentalism, corruption and politics,” Mayotte says. “This kind of satire doesn’t go out of style, fortunately for us, unfortunately for the world. The story does feel incredibly current. We’re living in a world now of intense war, fundamentalism, intolerance. I don’t think our audiences are going to fail to make those connections.”

Mayotte says he knew from the beginning of the process on this production that he wanted to work with jazz composer Phillip Greenlief to create a score. The two had worked together on R&T’s first full-scale production, Ionesco’s Macbett, in 1995, and had been attempting to coordinate schedules so they could work together again.

“Phillip is so amazing,” Mayotte says. “We bonded over literature. He’s an extraordinary musician but he has a master’s in literature. He’ll compose a whole suite or record a CD based on a book or a story, like his CD Flowers for Mrs. Dalloway,” Mayotte says. “The connection between literature and music is really strong for him.”

For their previous collaboration, Greenlief composed and recorded the music. For Candide Greenlief will compose the score and perform it live.

To describe this musical but not THE musical version of Candide, Mayotte says: “It’s a period chamber play with anachronism, commedia dell’arte, innuendo and cheap theatrics.”

He adds: “It’s Amadeus drunk on wine coolers. It seems like a polite salon, especially in the Berkeley City Club, so the audience might think they’re seeing a polite play. But it goes off the rails and stays there. That’s our take, in a nutshell.”

For more with Cliff Mayotte and the evolution of Rough and Tumble, visit my theater page here.

Candide runs Aug. 29-Sept. 21 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $16-$22. Call 510-499-0356 or visit or

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