La Dispute, the latest adventure in theatre-going from the A.R.T. in Cambridge, Mass., is the very elaborate, very polished and very fascinating output of theatrical experimentation conducted by director Anne Bogart that took as its initial input a rather slight (less than 60 minutes long) Marivaux play which happens to also be about an experiment.
Though the production bears little resemblance to other Marivaux this reviewer has seen (Stephen Wadsworth's The Game of Love and Chance at The Huntington and the recent movie of The Triumph of Love) it does tread on familiar Marivaux territory. The game, in this case, is set in motion by a Prince who wishes to settle the question of which gender is more inclined towards inconstancy.
He arranges for two boys and two girls to be raised in complete social isolation and then sets them free at eighteen to chance upon each other and let "nature" take its course. Unfortunately, in the end neither love nor anything else triumphs. The Prince abruptly calls a halt to the experiment and disperses everyone, leaving matters so unresolved that some, myself included, weren't sure the evening was over.
That aside, there is much to take away from this production. What we see on the expansive stage of the Loeb Drama Center is the result of a highly collaborative rehearsal process and design effort. The cornerstones for the actors' work are a technique Bogart adapted from modern dance known as "Viewpoints" and another movement-based discipline developed by her Saratoga International Theatre Institute co-founder, the Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki. (There is worthwhile reading to be found on the A.R.T. website describing the rehearsal process of this production.)
Two additional important facts inform this production. One is that it's done in modern dress - very glamorous Armani evening clothes - and the other is that the four principals are all several score beyond the age of eighteen. The modern sensibility is well enough supported by Gideon Lester's translation to give the events a timeless quality rather than grounding them in the Eighteenth Century sensibilities from which Miravaux's ideas sprung.
At first, the maturity of the actors is off-putting, but the wisdom of experience and the discipline of extensive training which enables them to distill that experience and express it in a very particular way soon wins out. A friend has likened it to watching well-trained opera singers who reach the peak of their abilities well beyond the age of some of the characters they portray.
Once you accept that this is not Miravaux's La Dispute, but rather the vision of Bogart and company, than it can be enjoyed for what it is. And there is much humor and enough truth in the performances of Ellen Lauren, Stephen Webber, Kelly Maurer and Will Bond as they rapidly advance from falling in love with themselves, to becoming attracted to the first person of the opposite sex they encounter, to behaving very badly with each other to make the core of the evening an experiment worth trying.
La Dispute runs through February 22nd at the American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Drama Center, 54 Brattle St., Cambridge, Mass. Purchase discount tickets online or call 617-547-8300 for regularly priced tickets. For more information: www.amrep.org.