Opened Aug. 11, 2007, Bruns Amphitheater, Orinda
More love, less triumph in Cal Shakes-San Jose Rep co-production
two [1/2] stars Romance trumps comedy
In the theater, there’s nothing worse than feeling on the outside of a joke. Members of the audience chortle happily while you sit there stony faced and cranky wondering why the onstage antics delight some but only serve to annoy you.
Such was my fate at The Triumph of Love, a co-production of California Shakespeare Theater and San Jose Repertory Theatre that opened Saturday night (so far this so-called summer, Cal Shakes is three for three with bone-chilling opening-night weather).
Having seen and loved Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux’s The Triumph of Love when Stephen Wadsworth adapted and directed it in 1993 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, I was looking forward to revisiting the play. TheatreWorks produced the musical version, which drops the “the” from the title (rather than add an exclamation point, one supposes), in 2001, but it seemed like a different play entirely.
Director Lillian Groag’s new adaptation (working from a translation by Frederick Kluck) attempts to temper the sharp-edged romance of the story with the spirit of Italian commedia dell’arte that inspired Marivaux. I’m all for the romance — especially when it gets thorny and dark — but the commedia stuff left me (literally) in the cold.
Most of the comedic duties fall to Danny Scheie as Arlechino and Ron Campbell as Dimas, a gardener. Scheie is like an Italianate Tigger — he’s bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun. Except he’s not all that fun. He jettes across the stage with zest, but his seemingly mentally challenged character is nothing more than silliness in a hat.
Campbell’s gardener is a riff on Larry the Cable Guy — so much so I expected him to interject a “Git-R-Done!” here and there. At one point, Scheie and Campbell are involved in a lengthy pantomime, and though I watched attentively, I had absolutely no idea what they were doing. None at all.
I was much more interested in the love quartet at the story’s center.
Stacy Ross is Princess Leonide, whose goal it is to get the handsome young Prince Agis (Jud Williford) to fall in love with her. The match will mend old family feuds and restore the prince to his rightful throne.
But to win the prince’s affections, Leonide must disguise herself as a man and infiltrate his sequestered court. With the help of her lady in waiting (Catherine Castellanos, a marvelous actor, squandered in an Ethel Mertz role), Leonide gains access to the home of Hermocrates (Dan Hiatt), a great philosopher and teacher/guardian to the prince.
The challenge will be to get Hermocrates and his sister, Leontine (Domenique Lozano), to allow her (aka him) to stay long enough for her to woo Agis. Turns out Leonide is quite adept at slinging the ol’ BS, especially in the ways of love.
She convinces Leontine, a somewhat hardened soul, that “he” is in love with her. Leontine melts under the handsome young “man’s” attentions. Hermocrates is a little harder to crack. He sees right through the princess’ male disguise, so Leonide convinces the old philosopher that she donned the costume to win his affections.
In her spare time, when she’s not deluding the older folks, the princess lures the prince’s affection, first as a friend (and fellow dude) then as a woman.
As Leonide throws her love around like promises at a presidential debate, Kate Edmunds’ set (which features shag-carpeted shrubs at one side and an unattractive rear wall that’s meant to indicate the harsh, ugly world outside Hermocrates’ gates) begins sprouting red flowers. The same is true for Raquel Barreto’s gorgeous period costumes — the more in love the characters become, the more red flourishes appear on their costumes.
With all the red, I wondered if this was a comedy or an effort to fight AIDS in Africa.
Director Groag has a hard time blending elements here, and the actors, especially during the so-called comic bits, struggle to make sense of it all. A sense of spontaneity is overwhelmed by work that feels tightly programmed and full of effort. Perhaps this will soften by the time the production moves to San Jose next month.
What works here — amid the cartoon sound effects and the totally uncharming cupid peeing fountain — is Ross’ central performance. She carries the production on her able back and receives stalwart support from Williford, Hiatt and Lozano, all of whom come alive — in comic and dramatic ways — in their scenes with Ross.
There’s some serious exploration of love here, and the “happy ending” is actually fairly sad, which is mightily interesting. It’s just too bad that so much of this Triumph is so mightily silly.
For information about The Triumph of Love visit www.calshakes.org.