She was a fantasist and a narcissist.

Restless, rootless, and faithless, she treated her husband with contempt and their only child with disdain, if not actual disgust.

A slave to fashion and to her carnal desires, she was so  vain, shallow, and self-indulgent that she would go off with any man who paid her a finely phrased compliment.

And yet one of the finest novelists in history chose to devote 500 pages of dense, minutely observed, and stunningly crafted prose to her inner life.

What is so special about Emma Bovary? Why should we feel for her?

And, more saliently, how can we tell Emma's story to a contemporary audience without making it sound like a soap opera or a salacious episode of E!'s True Hollywood Story?

Those are just some of the dilemmas posed by the creators of The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary, a brilliant, deliciously playful, irreverent, and funny postmodern stage adaptation of the novel developed by the British theater ensemble Peepolykus (pronounced people-like-us).

It makes its American premiere in a thoroughly enjoyable production by Curio  Theatre now through May 20 at the company's performance space in West Philly.

The Massive Tragedy is two performances in one: On the one hand, it dramatizes Emma's story. But the play also is a reflexive, self-referential commentary on literature. The actors regularly take breaks from the action to discuss its themes and its ideas directly with the audience.

Somehow, it all hangs together beautifully.

So who was Emma Bovary?

Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary is about a young woman who grew up on a small farm in provincial France who is so desperate to leave her boring rural town that she marries the first eligible man she meets. Charles (played by Villanova theater instructor Andrew Blasenak) catches her fancy because he's an educated, bourgeois professional, a man who could help her climb the social ladder.

Soon enough Emma is bored by Charles, who is about as exciting as a turnip, and she begins a disastrous affair.

Director John Bellomo (Curio's Oedipussy),  a University of the Arts alum who earned an MFA in directing from Temple, delivers a minor miracle with his staging: The Massive Tragedy features more than a dozen speaking parts and as many locations. Bellomo delivers wonders using a tiny cast of four and a minimalist setting. Blasenak and his costars Chase Byrd (Curio's Death of a Salesman) and Doug Greene (Curio's Noises Off!) give off sparks as they race through a dizzying assortment of comic roles with incredible style and verve.

Bellomo's canvas is a simple, innovative set composed entirely of panels of chalkboard. When a character climbs a tree, he'll draw it on the board. It's the kind of wonderful little detail that fills up every scene and helps enliven the show.

But The Massive Tragedy owes much of its success to its sole female actor, Aetna Gallagher (Curio's Dancing at Lughnasa and Oedipussy), a Curio founding member who delivers a shattering turn as Emma.

Gallagher maintains poise and control through an exhausting performance that demands she traverse a roller coaster of emotional states. Were Emma alive today, she probably would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Gallagher astonishes as she follows the character down the crooked path that eventually leads to her death.

She's passionate and funny during the thematic breaks, telling the audience that most viewers today won't have the requisite knowledge to understand Flaubert's  social criticism. To know, for instance, that he was writing at a time when the very idea that female characters had inner lives was relatively new in literature. Or to know that women were denied so many avenues of self-expression and reflection that their inner lives were robbed of vitality. Or to know that Flaubert criticized consumerism – then a new phenomenon in capitalism – as a mechanism of power that gave women an illusion of control and a false avenue of self-expression.

Is Emma Bovary a me-first consumer or a woman who longs for true independence?

The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary won't give you easy answers, just great insights – and a barrel full of guffaws.

The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary, through May 20 at Curio Theatre Company,  4740 Baltimore Avenue. Tickets: $25; $20 students & seniors. Information: 215-525-1350, http://www.curiotheatre.org/.