What a Find

An obscure period piece is a pleasant surprise at Lantern.

by Cary M. Mazer

Lovers and Executioners

Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Sts., through May 9, 215-569-9700

There are three clear pleasures in Lovers and Executioners at Lantern Theater. The first pleasure, hands down, is Sally Mercer in drag. She plays a 17th-century French lady who (for reasons I'll describe in a moment) disguises herself as a boastful, slightly affected, slightly effeminate gentlemen. With her broad forehead, her wavy hair hanging loose like the ears of an afghan, and lace collars and cuffs gathered around the edges of her waistcoat and breeches (costumes by Kevin Ross), Mercer looks absolutely smashing.

The second pleasure is a period production of a period play executed with style and confidence. Dugald MacArthur directs (on a solidly built period set by Nick Embree lit by Janet Embree) with panache, wit, and without a drop of prissiness or a whiff of a costume party about it.

But the greatest pleasure by far, for me at least, was the sheer joy of encountering a play about which I knew virtually nothing. Playwright John Strand has translated and (he says) freely adapted The Wife, Judge and Accuser by Antoine Jacob de Montfleury, a contemporary and rival of Moliére. Theater scholars will know the name Montfleury, but very few of us know the names of his plays, let alone have read any of them.

So, because I'm unfamiliar with the original, I don't know how radically Strand has changed it (his translation does use, loosely, the rhymed hexameter verse of Montfleury's play). And I don't know how much of the play's peculiar tensions between its relatively trivial plot complications and the deep and complicated human emotions of its two central characters are a product of the script, of the adaptation, or of the strengths and shortcomings of MacArthur's production.

And these tensions really are peculiar. Bernard (Dan Olmstead), believing his beloved wife, Julie (Mercer), unfaithful, has murdered her by marooning her on a desert island, keeping the cause of his wife's death and his motives for killing her a shameful secret from the world. Unbeknownst to him, Julie, who never knew why her husband had tried to murder her, has survived, and, disguised as a foppish gentlemen, has come to Bernard's house in search of… what?

The complications of the plot are trivial in comparison: the young woman (Amy Gorby) Bernard wants to marry, who has fallen in love with Julie in disguise; the rival suitor (Joe Guzman, playing a Spanish aristocrat with a delicious Castilian accent); the adoring fencing master (Charles Conwell) who is assisting Julie in her disguise; Bernard's two comic servants (Robert Christophe, looking like a Velazquez picaro, and Marcia Saunders, who has a delightful speech about lower-class subversions of upper-class masters).

None of these plot complications seem to relate to the open-ended questions about the play's central relationship. What does the disguised Julie want from Bernard? Explanation? Vengeance? Love? And why is this self-deceiving, mercenary, cowardly, middle-aged man, foolishly seeking to marry a much younger woman, worthy of Julie's love? The trivial plot complications distract the audience from these much more interesting questions. But just when you start to think that Montfleury (or Strand, or MacArthur) has let the play's real issues get out of focus, the two central characters stop the action and look at themselves, asking themselves the very questions we're asking about them: Julie begins to wonder what she really wants from this man who had tried to kill her; and Bernard, gazing at his reflection in a fountain, is appalled to see the shallow, insensitive person he has become.

By the end of the play, after a few more comic complications, a few splendid swordfights (choreographed by Conwell), and a few too many jokes about swords and phalluses, the whole play finally alights on the play's real subject: on Julie and her revenge, Bernard and his guilt, and the possibility of a newly forged love between them. And here the play becomes something else entirely. Like Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, Euripides' Alcestis, Da Ponte and Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, and the best of Marivaux's plays, Lovers and Executioners finally shows us that happy endings have their human costs, that life and love are forever uncertain, that wounds leave scars, and that love is always worth the risks and the trials.

It's unclear to me why these hints at profundity at the play's conclusion don't fully come off. Is Montfleury's play too superficial to carry the weight of its own discoveries? Is it Strand's adaptation, or MacArthur's adaptation, that fails to find the right balance? Have Mercer and Olmstead simply not found, or succeeded in convincing the audience, of the depths of their onetime marital love, or of the depths of pain they each feel at their respective betrayals, to explain how the characters could seek to punish, and then to forgive, and then, possibly, to love one another? Or is this depth of feeling not there in Montfleury's (or Strand's) script for them to find?

Ask me again after I've seen another half-dozen productions of Strand's play, or of Montfleury's original. I should only be so lucky.