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The Phantom Lady

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The title may be, in a way, misleading; no real ghost appears in Pedro Calderon de la Barca's The Phantom Lady. Passion, independence, and determination do, and play an important role, as do characters and their willingness to re-examine their beliefs and perceptions.

The new production of The Phantom Lady from the Pearl Theatre Company gets all this across, while it's making sure you have a good time. The Pearl is using Edwin Honig's translation of the 17th century play, bring across the laughs and the meaning, but getting more right as well. Though it makes a few missteps along the way, it still succinctly entertains while it tells its story of an unusual courtship between a man and a woman he's not sure exists.

A chance meeting sets their romance in motion: She is Dona Angela (Celeste Ciulla), in mourning, locked away in a secret room in her brother's house, forbidden contact with the outside world. Her love interest is Don Manuel (Ray Virta), a friend of her brother's, staying at their house. She discovers a secret passageway between their two rooms, but what are her options if she doesn't want her brothers to know of her excursions?

The melodramatic possibilities for this perhaps familiar setup are endless in this day and age, but Calderon keeps a few surprises in store: it's part Moliere, part Guys and Dolls (the attitude, not the musicality), and part Shakespearean comedy. There are misunderstandings and misrepresentations galore, but the story itself always falls just on the side of believability.

Rene Buch, artistic director of Repertorio Espanol, has directed The Phantom Lady with a touch that seems to vary wildly from one moment to the next. He brings a rich sense of informal humor to the show, but he also instills some sense of confusion.

Some scenes are treated absolutely realistically, while others are highly suggestive. It's enormously entertaining to hear the actors make squeaking sounds approximating hinges while they're moving through the mirrors, but is it necessary? Buch's striking staging of other scenes - including a couple of surprisingly humorous sword fights, and confrontations between Dona Angela and Don Manuel that grab your attention and won't let go - suggests it is not.

In addition, it's quite possible to question his use of an almost entirely bare stage for the setting, as pieces of furniture and certain props play vital roles in the dialogue. The scenic design (almost a backdrop) that Sarah Lambert has provided for the production is good, but when compared to the luscious costumes from Liz Covey or Stephen Petrilli's inventive lights, the overall effect of it is lessened.

Nevertheless, the actors do everything they can to pick up the slack. The women - Ciulla, Rachel Botchan, Emily Gray, and especially Robin Leslie Brown - are among the strongest of the performers, bringing copious amounts of humor and warmth to their scenes. Some of the best moments in the show are in the second act when they're all onstage together, one unstoppable force.

Virta is also very strong, an intriguing comic and romantic presence, but Dan Daily and Jason Manuel Olazabal don't quite live up to him in their smaller roles as Dona Angela's brothers. Aaron Ganz as one servant is fine, but Dominic Cuskern is occasionally too broad in his more robust role as Don Manuel's servant.

It's surprising, in a way, since broad performances and direction seem to order of the day here, but Cuskern takes it a bit too far. Like Buch, it seems clear that he has some clear ideas, but the pieces just don't fall together. Most of the other pieces in The Phantom Lady do, making it - problems aside - an entertaining and worthwhile evening.

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The Pearl Theatre Company
The Phantom Lady
Through February 17
Theatre 80, 80 St. Marks Place between First and Second Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 598-9802