Marivaux's The Triumph of Love is an eighteenth-century play, but it contains elements reminiscent of Shakespeare's work, which was written more than a century earlier: the spunky heroine who dresses as a man in order to pursue her beloved; the haven of learning and philosophy whose inhabitants discover, like the young scholars of Love's Labor's Lost, that the heart is a far more persuasive organ than the brain.
A princess, Leonide, wishes to wed the prince Agis, whose throne her family usurped -- both in order to undo the wrong and because she loves him. She explains all of this to her maid, Corine, in one of the longest expository passages ever to open a play. Agis, unaware of his own background, has been raised by Hermocrates, a brilliant philosopher, and Hermocrates's spinster sister, Leontine. The disguised Leonide erupts into the household and turns it upside down, bribing the servants Harlequin and Dimas and coaxing everyone to fall in love with her. Agis accepts her as a beloved companion, Hermocrates sees through her disguise and courts her as a woman, and Leontine remains convinced the ravishing interloper is male.
But Triumph of Love isn't the comic romp you might expect. The servants are funny, but not broadly so. Leontine and Hermocrates aren't the ridiculous traditional old pantaloons who stand in the way of young love. And Leonide is rather unpleasantly manipulative. There's a coldness at the heart of this text that can strike the viewer as either elegantly cynical or chilling. And it's this aspect that director Ed Baierlein emphasizes in Germinal Stage's production. The punchline may have something to do with the victory of feeling over reason, but there's very little feeling in evidence.
Who is princess Leonide, and why does she love Agis? Apparently, because the plot requires it. She woos the prince with the same cool calculation with which she seduces his guardians, never displaying vulnerability or self-doubt. Agis is equally unreflective. He loves Leonide as a special companion when he thinks she's a man, and switches instantly to sexual admiration when he learns she's a woman. Oddly, it's the two elders who display complexity and for whom we feel interest and compassion. As acted by Erica Sarzin-Borrillo, Leontine is genuinely moving, slowly coming to recognize her own loneliness and repressed capacity for passion, then abruptly giving in to them. Michael A. Parker plays Hermocrates with warmth, sincerity and dignity.
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Catherine Duquette is an accomplished and very beautiful Leonide who speaks her lines with clarity and intelligence and has no trouble holding our interest. To an extent, though, this character remains pale and uninvolved throughout, and it's impossible to figure out her motives. She gets credit for acting to right a wrong, but she's also utterly unconcerned about the pain her deceptions cause others.
It would have been interesting to see Duquette play the princess with more relish and abandon, but that would have gone against the grain of this highly stylized production, which deliberately underlines Marivaux's skepticism about love. At the beginning, the characters swirl about the small stage, noting each other's presence, though not with any apparent pleasure. As the action progresses, those not directly involved in it never leave the stage -- and those who are involved sometimes seem to be speaking directly to these onlookers, rather than to their partners in the scene. This behavior adds an entertainingly mannered and self-referential layer to the proceedings.
Sarzin-Borrillo, Parker and Duquette are very strong, but this is an excellent cast from top to bottom. Tad Baierlein is a poised and enigmatic Harlequin, and Paul M. Barner a refreshingly funny, malapropism-dropping gardener. Michelle Welton charms as Corine. And David Blumenstock's demeanor suggests a more clever and interesting Agis than the lines indicate.
The Triumph of Love is worth seeing as an introduction to the work of an important playwright, and as a witty, unsentimental take on love.
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