The French philosopher Voltaire took himself so seriously it is possible he might have questioned the screwball comedy Colin Speer Crowley crafted out of one episode in his life.
“Philosophus,” the play — opening at Best Medicine Rep Theatre — speculates about the break between Emperor Frederick the Great of Prussia and Voltaire, who had been living at court.
In the play, that falling out centers on a sensitive object Voltaire had stolen, all in the name of “freedom and liberty,” the philosopher’s mantra. He, in turn, is on the run from the emperor’s Baron Freytag.
Voltaire was born François-Marie Arouet but was better known by his nom de plume. Voltaire was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit, his criticism of Christianity, especially the Roman Catholic Church; and his advocacy of freedom of religion.
This the first time Best Medicine Rep is presenting the comedy, also making its premiere in Montgomery County as a whole. Crowley, however, had worked with the theater in developing the play for a 2017 reading.
This is also the first time Best Medicine Rep is producing a play under a professional contract. Actors Equity member Terence Aselford is starring as Voltaire. But Aselford has a family connection as his wife, Catherine, directs at the theater.
Crowley, a “big fan of history and biography,” read the story about Voltaire and Frederick the Great but “embellished” on it.
“It’s one of my favorite time periods, and the play is drama mixed with slapstick and with larger-than-life characters,” Crowley said.
Yet, “Philosophus” was a long time in coming.
“I wrote the play in my teens and left it off to the side while I wrote other plays,” Crowley said. “After some success with comedy-dramas, I got re-attracted to it and wrote again, with the same title, from scratch.”
Another point of appeal is that he wasn’t aware of many plays about Voltaire, despite his being a compelling character.
The characters in the play are real, but Crowley takes one in a different direction. One example is Mademoiselle Denis: she was indeed Voltaire’s niece, though her “lust-ridden” behavior leads everyone to think she’s something else.
Despite the time period, the playwright said, the play’s comic style is “broad, very modern.” In addition to a torrent of words, “Philosophus” also contains farce situations causing the actors to around the stage quickly in an exaggerated manner. There are fake duels, costume wigs and funny accents that keep the audience’s attention.
“A lot of the language is wooden and affected, very flowery,” Crowley said. “It’s definitely like a kind of Monty Python show.”
For all the “fun,” Aselford admitted there are challenges, mainly playing the lead character.
One is the long speeches Voltaire has at the play’s opening and closing. Also, Voltaire is the only character who addresses the audience and the “only one allowed to break the fourth wall.”
“He tries at every opportunity to pontificate on freedom and liberty, and other people keep trying to cut him off – which they should,” Aselford laughed. “It’s easier to say a line back to someone else. With the long speeches, one tends to jump to another part of the play with a different speech.”
Crowley, who plans to come down from Connecticut to see opening weekend, is “really excited” to see the Best Medicine Rep team’s production — even if Voltaire wouldn’t be.
“But the actual events were ludicrous,” the playwright said.
The director is Stan Levin and the cast includes Terence Heffernan, Rebecca A. Herron, Khaleshia Thorpe-Price and John Morogiello.
“Philosophus” runs Feb. 1-24 at Best Medicine Rep Theatre in the Lakeforest Mall, 2nd floor near Sears), Gaithersburg. www.bestmedicinerep.org.
As a nonprofit theater company, it is devoted entirely to the development and production of new comic plays.