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The Triumph of Love/Caligula

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THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE

Court Theatre

CALIGULA

European Repertory Theatre

at Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, Baird Hall

It's good to start big. And Charles Newell, Court Theatre's newly appointed associate artistic director, makes a strong debut with this rare revival (in every sense) of Pierre Marivaux' foolishly wise, sadly happy The Triumph of Love (1732).

True to its 18th-century origins, this charming classic proves its characters' passions by testing them, though love does triumph over false reason. True to its author (who was notorious for his finespun, floridly clever marivaudage), this Triumph is artificial to the point of brittleness and as carefree as a Boucher or Fragonard--appropriately, it's performed on a carpet of white sand, literally framed like a giant walk-in painting. Triumph can still touch a modern audience, the more unexpectedly because it must break through its own artifice. It helps too that Court uses Stephen Wadsworth's vibrant 1992 adaptation (based on a translation by him and Nadia Benabid), wafting a breath of fresh air through a precious old play.

The triumph of this production is to take a familiar masquerade-filled plot, based on commedia dell'arte, and delve deeply into it. In Newell's rich staging, Marivaux' compassionate depiction of the psychology of need is especially evocative. His staging is also concentrated: the careful, calculated love scenes are like comic chess games in which one opponent is continually blindfolded.

The enterprising princess Leonide combines a search for love with revenge, obtaining both with some deft role-playing. Accompanied by her maid Corine, Leonide disguises herself as a man named Phocion in order to meet Agis, the young prince her family overthrew and whose throne she regretfully inherited. Agis has sought shelter in an isolated provincial "retreat," where he's under the control of his dour, love-loathing guardian Hermocrate, a stoic philosopher who's taught the boy to hate Leonide. Sharing his seclusion is Hermocrate's equally severe sister, Leontine.

Declaring that she is in love and "There is justice to be done!" Leonide sets out to seduce Agis, thereby also punishing his guardians for having set him against her. She woos Hermocrate (who guesses her sex) and seduces Leontine as Phocion. Her real love is reserved for Agis, however, though she must pretend to be a woman she calls "Aspasie." Like his guardians, Agis can't believe that spontaneous love can last, but pressing her ardor Leonide makes him confess that "the heart cannot love by rules."

Leonide deceives all three of them with what seems unconscionable trickery--except that, in different ways and for different reasons, each needs to be fooled into love. Agis especially, the one for whom she risks so much, would never accept the throne from the hated Leonide--not until he's fallen in love with the redemptive Aspasie, anyway.

At first Newell's staging seems as cold as the bright, pure sand that covers the stage: the action is claustrophobically restricted and bathed in a pitiless glare. But like much here, this too is artful deception. In the final act, for instance, the stage is filled with candles, symbols of all the little lies snuffed out by a literal bright light when all is revealed (blinding the audience). Everyone abandons bitterness and revenge, though in a final, unnecessarily sour moment we see Leontine and Hermocrate licking their wounds as they skulk off the stage.

Newell rightly plays down Leonide's revenge, underlining instead the undeviating love behind her devious stratagems. Kate Collins plays her with unflagging sincerity, even--or especially--in her elaborate deceptions. Her directness may not explain why Leonide goes much further than her aims require to fool and humilate Leontine and Hermocrate, but it makes her seem less vindictive. In fact Leonide even plays the false love scenes with an awe for the emotions being stirred.

Linda Kimbrough perfectly conveys Leontine's evolution from a crabbed, fearful spinster to a late-blooming lover, someone you want to protect from her own excesses. John Reeger is equally convincing as the iron-willed Hermocrate, changing from a dry stick to a true believer (alas, in false love). It hurts to watch their disillusionment: we know how hard it was for the brother and sister to surrender to a fantasy that must have seemed, however briefly, more real than their "retreat."

If the false love seems almost true, the real stuff is irresistible. The contrast between Collins's Leonide, who knows what she feels even as she conceals it, and Bruce Orendorf's Agis, who has never had such feelings before, triggers electric performances, as persuasive in what's not said as in the final rhapsodic sharing.

The one weakness in The Triumph of Love is the handling of Marivaux' uncertain comedy--raucous humor that seems out of place given the almost ritualized blocking of the serious scenes. Kyle Colerider-Krugh's jokes as the venal, opportunistic Harlequin are anachronistic and tedious, real groaners like calling the disguised females "dresspassers." (At the start of the second act Harlequin bursts into an intermezzo, jumping off the stage to kid audience members and gleefully read his own rave review in Streetwise. They used a hook for this kind of stuff in vaudeville.) As a malaprop-mouthing gardener, Jeffery Hutchinson fares better: at least he sticks to the story. And as the disguised maid Corine, Lisa Tejero palpably delights in her mistress's machinations.

John Culbert's supple lighting transforms the austere set, which he also designed, almost magically reflecting the play's moods and the actors' situations (though his design doesn't serve the low comedy). Against the spartan set Gayland Spaulding's period costumes seem even more resplendent. Charles Berigan's original music is superbly integrated into the love scenes, melodically punctuating the lines. It's rare to see such self-effacing music so effectively shape emotion.

Beginning midmonth The Triumph of Love runs in repertory--using the same seven actors--with Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine (directed by Nicholas Rudall), a play that also dabbles in cultural and sexual disguises.

If love obsesses Marivaux' searchers, Albert Camus' antihero is obsessed with death. The "superior suicide" that Camus depicted 55 years ago in his Caligula is, curiously, the one freely chosen moment in an intentionally perverse world--an intellectual Grand Guignol filled with real and threatened torture, murder, extortion, starvation, and rape.

To Camus no one could be free at the expense of others, not even the powerful. Caligula, incensed by the pointless death of his sister/lover Drusilla and haunted by the knowledge that "Men die and are not happy," determines to control death by distributing it with the randomness of nature; this to him is "to be logical at all costs." But his actions are not so coldly reasonable. When Caligula sees old Mucius taking his medicine, he accuses him of drinking an antidote out of fear of being poisoned--and proceeds to poison him. When a patrician imprudently prays to die to restore health to the emperor, Caligula takes him at his word.

"When I don't kill I feel alone," Caligula sighs. He searches for limits to his power, and inevitably a limit comes--his assassination at the age of 29. Killing him are rebels like the patriot Cherea, possessed by the "courage and simple faith of men who ask to be happy," who find it "intolerable to see one's life drained of meaning."

For a play that hasn't been done much, Caligula has suddenly become very popular, perhaps because its search for values amid violence is particularly pertinent now. Last summer the Element Theatre Company revived it in a stiff and unconvincing staging; it fares better as the season opener for the ambitious European Repertory Company, a collective of mainly European-trained artists who've found a new home at the Baird Hall theater. Performed on a massive ten-step staircase (at the top of which the three Fates--an interesting addition--gesticulate), Dale Goulding's bold staging is pictorial and fluid. He seems aware that the best antidote for the script's didacticism is sheer energy.

Inevitably it's a one-man show: Caligula lords it over the play as he did the world. Sinister and twisted, Yasen Peyankov strikes a tense balance between lucidity and insanity, building the mad scenes right out of the saner moments. It's a lot like watching Richard Nixon just before he left the White House.

As the incorruptible Cherea, Simon Perry makes much of his moral-minded character's cutting exchanges with Caligula but could make them stronger still. As Caligula's mistress, Carolyn Hoerdemann works hard to fuse Caesonia's sensuality and cruelty into a treacherous mix. Giggling idiotically as the opportunistic Helicon, Matt Yde exudes venality from every pore (but overdoes the leering). And as the poet-victim Scipio, Charley Knapp suggests rectitude under fire but not much else.

Two drawbacks are the house's poor acoustics, which require more precise articulation than these actors provide, and this staging's strange lack of guards. Caligula may feel alone, but it's not supposed to be literal.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.

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