by Elizabeth Maupin, Sentinel Theater Critic March 23, 1995
Credit Theatre Downtown with having the nerve to produce this 263-year-old comedy, which has had a flurry of recent productions in big regional theaters across the country but is wildly different from the modern drama Theatre Downtown almost always puts out. Director Mark Edward Smith and a wonderful cast have proved once again that Theatre Downtown, which is celebrating its sixth anniversary, knows how to rise to the occasion – and also that the best theater depends on the power to surprise.
Certainly surprise is in store for most theatergoers, because few of them will have heard of Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux (1688-1763), a playwright and journalist whose work is performed only rarely in English. Marivaux wrote primarily for the Paris-based Comedie-Italienne, whose work was derived in part from the stock characters and improvisation of Italian commedia dell’arte.
This playwright went beyond commedia, though, by using many fewer stock characters – in The Triumph of Love, only the clown Harlequin – and juxtaposing them with people with real emotions and complicated problems. The result (in this 1992 adaptation by Stephen Wadsworth) is a play that’s both marvelously silly and unexpectedly wrenching – an antic comedy with the startling power to move.
In The Triumph of Love, the princess Leonide has inherited her throne from an uncle who usurped it from the rightful ruler. That ruler had a son, who has been raised secretly by a reclusive philosopher named Hermocrate, and Leonide has fallen in love with the young man from afar. Disguised in male attire, she has come to Hermocrate’s estate to try to befriend the prince and to restore him to the throne.
The complications arise when Leonide – who calls herself Phocion – tries to insinuate herself into Hermocrate’s household by beguiling both Hermocrate’s spinster sister and the philosopher himself, who thinks Phocion is really a young woman named Aspasie.
The names matter little if you realize that just about everyone is in love with Leonide. And the situation becomes further entangled with the help of her clever maid, a bullying gardener and the jesterlike valet, Harlequin.
All of this intrigue unfolds at Theatre Downtown in a lovely, simple set (designed by Aaron Babcock), which consists of little more than a tall hedge with two doorways cut through it behind a railing entwined with trailing roses. Tim Muldrew’s equally simple lighting gives the production an elegant glow, and Kate Singleton’s handsome costumes fit the graceful, unadorned design.
Such grace reveals itself again and again throughout the cast, which is filled with sure-footed actors who know exactly what to make of such refined comedy. Smith, who is an accomplished actor himself but has little directing experience, seems also to know just what he’s doing as a director: It may take the production a few minutes to establish its style, but after that there’s hardly a misstep in sight.
Part of the pleasure here, in fact, is that nearly everyone performs with such aplomb. Mark March makes a wildly extravagant Harlequin, who even whimpers to excess; Anitra Pritchard is bright-eyed and merry as the maid Corine, and Tommy Keesling’s doltish gardener Dimas is wonderfully full of himself: It took me too long to catch onto Dimas’ malapropisms, but Keesling’s bullish manner (he announces his entrance by bellowing ”Tra la la la la”) is a riot.
Tom Joyner finds both dignity and foolishness in the philosopher Hermocrate, whose confusion is both amusing and painful to watch; Joyner also, as always, finds a spare beauty in the language he speaks. Barbara Blake delivers a similar (if a bit more affected) combination of hauteur and naked emotion as Hermocrate’s sister, the severe Leontine. And Peter Gardner has a sweet manner and a nice depth of feeling as the handsome young prince Agis – although his mushy articulation sounds less like 18th century royalty than like Generation X.
Chief among this production’s treasures, though, is the performance of Cindy Beckert as Leonide, whose aristocratic self-assurance is a joy to behold. Beckert, who is new to local theater, is both a masterful and a masterly Leonide – a woman used to using her power and a woman who is skillful at everything she does.
When Leonide finally reveals herself to Agis, though, Beckert strips all that assurance away: Her face is plain and open and utterly vulnerable as the character lays all her power at Agis’ feet. It’s a splendid performance, and one that perfectly defines this splendid show.
Playwright: Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux. – Adapted by: Stephen Wadsworth. Cast: Cindy Beckert, Barbara Blake, Peter Gardner, Tom Joyner, Tommy Keesling, Mark March, Anitra Pritchard. – Director: Mark Edward Smith. – Set designer: Aaron Babcock. – Lighting designer: Tim Muldrew. – Costume designer: Kate Singleton.