Sometimes a play can leap through the centuries and land gracefully in our midst. But it takes a crack cast to handle antiquated language forms and old-fashioned sentiments. To work really well, a revival must speak some fundamental truths about the human condition. The Triumph of Love, an eighteenth-century farce by the French playwright Marivaux now being performed by Director's Theater, makes the trip to the Nineties but arrives somewhat frazzled and frayed.
A trickle of true wit and a grasp of the nature of hypocrisy keep the original work alive. But this is not a great play: The situation it describes seems awfully silly, the characters are stiff, and most of the cast flounders in all that period production style. Though there are a few inspired moments and one truly delightful performance, too much visible effort goes into pronouncing Marivaux's endless stream of words: Every line sounds like a mouthful.
As the show opens, we find Princess Leonide in disguise. She and her lady-in-waiting are pretending to be men in order to infiltrate the garden of the misogynistic philosopher Hermocrate, who keeps himself, his sister Leontine, and a young prince, Agis, in permanent retreat from the delights of love and the injustices of the world.
Princess Leonide is the granddaughter of the man who usurped the throne from Agis's father. She wants to return the throne to its rightful owner (as long as she can share it with him), but she's learned that Hermocrate has prejudiced Agis and others against her. So the resourceful Leonide decides to teach everyone a lesson--she simultaneously woos Hermocrate (disguised as a girl) and his sister Leontine (as a young man). Then she woos Agis when the brother and sister aren't looking. All fall for her, of course. As brother and sister make their separate elopement plans, Leonide makes real plans to marry Agis, drawing the gardener and the Harlequin (a common comic figure of the period, usually an earthy trickster) into her plot.
As the lies roll off her tongue a mile a minute, Leonide rationalizes all her machinations--she is trying to do the right thing, and Hermocrate needs to be set straight. But as Bob Woolsey plays him, Hermocrate is too tragic--most of the time he, not Leonide, is the sympathetic figure. Antonia Freeland is usually a delightful presence on stage, but this time her earnest bounciness as Leonide never once convinces us of the rightness or virtue of the princess. There's a coldness to this performance that is out of place and distracting. Then, too, Kelly Mackley as Agis gives her too little humanity to play off of--we never believe for a second that these two love each other.
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The one bright light in this production is Linda Button as the sister, Leontine. Button is utterly at ease with the style of the play, handles the language masterfully and incites the best work from the other actors as well. When she is on stage, Woolsey relaxes into his role and sparks begin to fly; Freeland softens and responds with more spontaneous comic behavior. Button is perfect for the role of the sister, but she really should have played Leonide.
However, the play is a tough one. The first act includes a tedious setup for the convoluted storyline. The second act is dull. Only in the third act do the actors seem at ease with the language or with director Joan Staniunas's comic design. And that design is really very good. Staniunas has set her farce in the round, with tree branches circling the stage. A small Cupid, surrounded by a bench, trumpets from the center of the stage--it's a spare, smart set. Staniunas keeps the actors moving in graceful swirls around it, using every inch to effect. It all looks terrific--except for the costumes, which simply don't work. It's hard to even hear the Harlequin because the costume by Karen Teel screams so loudly.
Exercising the eighteenth-century mind that still so palpably influences us is a worthy endeavor--a dirty job, but someone has to do it. But no matter how good today's actors may be in more accessible modern plays, finding the right people to reflect the mannered delights of the past remains a challenge--one that Director's Theater doesn't meet this time.