In the new Storm Theatre production of House of Desires, the irony is so thick that you couldn't pierce it with a well-timed sword thrust. That's a shame, because director Peter Dobbins and fight choreographer Michael Daly have devised for this show some of the most nail-biting sword fights to be seen on New York stages in ages. The energy and passion with which the actors attack each other jolt you into believing that something vital is at stake with every jab.
Unfortunately, nothing else captures this same visceral excitement and unpredictability. In fact, nothing at all serious even seems to be at stake through any of the rest of Dobbins's production, which has been inexplicably rendered with more arched eyebrows than a depilatory testing lab, and an overly loud, grimacing comic style that all but physically shakes laughs out of you.
Indelicacy of this nature is seldom tolerated with most classic comedies (outside the Aquila Theatre Company, at any rate), as it's generally seen as a self-defeating means to an end. Dobbins has fallen into exactly that trap: He spends so much time telling the audience when and how to laugh that he's forgotten to give them anything germane to laugh at. So his House of Desires is funny, if not because of anything the playwright, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, or her translator Catherine Boyle, actually scripted.
Thus, it's extraordinarily difficult to judge the 17th-century work on its own merits. Yes, it's intended as some sort of a comedy - the specific intricacies of the story's romantic entanglements, which climax with a group conflict in the dark and some three cases of mistaken identity (including one instance of cross-dressing), aren't typical fixtures of drama. And if nothing else, Dobbins establishes early on that this is an off-kilter world in which anything can happen.
Yet one can't imagine that de la Cruz - or most playwrights - would approve of major plot points treated as hurdles on a racetrack, every word of exposition being overtly or covertly mocked, and every other line being delivered with the subtlety of a foghorn. But from the first scene on, when Jessica Myhr as the forlorn Doņa Ana delivers pages of hoary set-up with the cross-eyed countenance of a soprano straining for high notes, it's abundantly clear that no one involved wants us to take anything seriously.
On one level, that's understandable; Doņa Ana's being wooed by one man while pining for another, who is himself in love with another woman named Doņa Leonor who is sought after by still another man, is at best the theatrical equivalent of soap opera. But nothing in the lines suggests de la Cruz intended all these complications to be accompanied by winks or rapid rollings of the eyes; much of the dialogue is so full of lyricism that one almost expects that she and Boyle thought it could play well when played straight.
But no: An ostensibly honest (if florid) line like "I'll follow your footsteps just as I'm afraid to follow my destiny" is comically waved away by the earthy maid Celia (Amanda Cronk) with an exasperated look to the audience. A heartbreaking romantic song (composed by Skip Kennon) is apparently only sung to give the actors reason to sob unconvincingly while delivering their lines, as if to further point up their situations' absurdities. And a pre-show "teaser," showing cast members making various exaggerated faces and gestures, attempts to thrust the whole enterprise into the realm of TV-movie melodrama before a single word is spoken.
Working against these constraints, the performers have few chances to shine, though Caitlin Mulhern almost makes her Doņa Leonor sympathetic. More emblematic of the company as a whole is Josh Vasquez, who overplays Castaņo even by the glorified standards of low-comedy servants; he's too restless and exasperating throughout to earn his plot-heavy turn as an object of too many men's desires near the show's end, and while you suspect he might turn in a decent performance were he to truly play the character as written, it's hard to be sure.
There's no doubt, though, that Todd Edward Ivins's Spanish manor house set, accented with ivy-covered columns, is exquisite, as are Erin Murphy's rich, velvety costumes. And whatever else it may be, this House of Desires is undeniably entertaining, though it will be most effortlessly enjoyed by those who believe you can never go too far, or sacrifice too much, for a laugh. Anyone who believes that the best comedy comes from honesty of character, honesty of intent, and honesty of situation may just have to grin and bear it.
House of Desires