Triumph of Love

Besotted: Andrews as Leonide
and Arbuckle as Agis

Walnut Street Theatre, Ninth and Walnut Sts., through Oct. 25, 574-3550 ext. 4

Someone simply must speak out on behalf of the 18th-century French playwright Pierre Carlet de Marivaux before it's too late, and I guess it has to be me.

Writing for a troupe of Italian comedians in Paris, Marivaux took the vulgar, rambunctious, athletic, improvisatory traditions of the Italian commedia dell'arte and transformed it all into something else entirely. For centuries the English-speaking world firmly believed that his plays were dainty, over-refined, effete and precious, with periwigged aristocrats prancing around manicured gardens in Louis Quinze satin breeches and waistcoats.

Then, less than a decade ago, Stephen Wadsworth directed Marivaux's 1732 comedy The Triumph of Love at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, and showed us that we were all wrong: Marivaux's plays are really heavy-duty dramas about human emotions at risk, about love and loss and suffering. Marivaux's plays (in translations by Wadsworth, James Magruder, and others) swept the country.

Then Magruder adapted his own widely produced translation into a musical with lyrics by Susan Birkenhead and music by Jeffrey Stock, which had a brief run on Broadway last year, and is now being produced, in a carbon-copy production by the same director (Michael Mayer) and set and costume designers (Heidi Ettinger and Catherine Zuber) at the Walnut Street Theatre. And if this production is right, then Wadsworth, too, was all wrong. Forget the human emotions, forget the suffering. And forget the daintiness and the preciosity. This stuff is just plain vulgar.

There's still a lot of potential for a real human drama here. Agis (Sean Arbuckle), a young prince, has been raised and educated for his whole life by a hyper-rationalist philosopher, Hermocrates (James Brennan), and Hermocrates' spinster sister Hesione (Mary Martello), in training for the day when he can reclaim his rightful throne from the reigning monarch, Princess Leonide. Leonide (Jennifer Lee Andrews), meanwhile, has fallen in love with Agis, and penetrates his garden classroom in male disguise. By revealing her sexual identity in varying degrees, and by pretending to reveal a variety of different, supposedly true, identities, Leonide makes Agis fall in love with her, and along the way tricks both Hermocrates and Hesione into falling in love with him/her as well. Leonide's companion Corine (Carla Renata Williams) similarly tricks the servant Harlequin (Tony Freeman) and the gardener Dimas (Daniel Marcus). By the end of the play, no one remains unscathed by the experience. "Don't have a heart," Corine warns Harlequin; "they break."

All this is in the musical version, too. But like the crayon-box-
colored hedges of the set, it's all just surface. The lyrics and the music (some it sounding like Camelot, some like Candide, some like Sondheim, some like Rodgers and Hart) tell us what we need to know about the characters, and not all of what they tell us is what we'd want to know: when we first see Hermocrates and Hesione, they show us that they're bloodthirsty avengers, not cool rationalists; Agis strikes us, not as earnest, but as cowardly, and Leonide as besotted, not resourceful.

Yes, Leonide manipulates the rationalists in the garden into falling in love with her, but not by exploiting their vulnerabilities: she just shows them her substantial cleavage. Agis is lured into love by a ludicrous damsel-in-distress saga for which Corine, Harlequin and Dimas serve as back-up singers. And the emotional agonies that Hermocrates and Hesione suffer at the hands of Leonide's casual manipulations are nothing compared to the indignities inflicted upon them by the costume designer; Malvolio, tricked into wearing yellow stockings in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, got off easy. In a wistful, Sondheim-like duet in the second act, Brennan and Martello show us the emotional potential in the situation, and their ability, as actors, to live it out. But the adaptation and production won't let that last long; real emotion is banished from this papier-mâché garden.

Magruder spins out additional commedia dell'arte-like plot complications to keep it all going at the level of hysteria the production sets early on. But most of these reduce Corine, Harlequin and Dimas to mere theatrical accessories, wasting Williams' wonderful sassy stage presence, and making little of either Freeman's considerable comic talents, or of the archetypal potentials of Harlequin ("I'm not a Harlequin," he declares; "I'm THE Harlequin!''). By the time Harlequin and Dimas are given a show-stopping number together (a rip-off of Cole Porter's "Brush up your Shakespeare") we couldn't care less.

Okay, okay, this is just a musical. Complaining about what this does to Marivaux's play is like complaining about what My Fair Lady does to Shaw's Pygmalion. (Then again…)

But as the actors pulled out more and more shtick; as the jack-in-the-box set popped open with more and more accessories; as the sky changed with every key-change to more and more garish colors; and as the audience roared with delight, howled with laughter and rose to its usual Philadelphia standing ovation, I just sat there in despair.

It had taken over two and a half centuries for us to discover the real Marivaux; now, in an evening, we had lost him again.

- Cary M. Mazer