A light, beguiling and sure footed new production of Marivaux's 1732 French comedy The Triumph of Love is the 2005 Outdoor Stage production of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Neatly blending low comedy with lyrical grace (it's as if Abbott and Costello had finally been teamed with Kitty Carlisle), director Craig A. Miller and translator-adaptor (STNJ Artistic Director) Bonnie Monte have created a production ideally suited as the capstone for a family outing and picnic in the lovely outdoor setting of the Greek amphitheatre on the campus of St. Elizabeth College at Convent Station.
Although a philosophic bent and social commentary are inherent in the play, you may not notice them in this fast-paced and lighthearted reading. And, on a starry summer night, this may actually be a good thing.
Princess Leonide and her servant Corine, who have disguised themselves as men, arrive in the garden of dour philosopher Hermocrate and his dour sister Leontine. The latter two are Stoics who abjure romantic love. It seems that the princess has inherited a throne which was unfairly usurped from the father of its rightful heir. This would be Agis, Hermocrate's ward and protégé. Disguised as a man, Leonide hopes to be able to spend time with Agis, who has been taught to hate her, and win his heart. With the help of Hermocrate's servant (Harlequin) and gardener (Dimas), Leonide, swiftly switching genders and identities throughout, woos Agis and both of. his benefactors.
Marivaux has been quite in vogue in the United States ever since opera director Stephen Wadsworth directed his own adaptation of The Triumph of Love at Princeton's McCarter Theatre in 1992. In that landmark production, Wadsworth's Harlequin dominated the proceedings in stylized commedia dell'arte fashion with Harlequin exuberantly framing events and setting the stage. There was an elegance underlining the humor. Also, at the end, there was a pathos which made the audience realize that Leonide's deceptive courtship of Leontine was cruel and callous as was our reveling in it.
Still, there is more than one way to skin a cat (well, Monte has Dimas describe himself as "the bee's knees"). As best as I can recall, Monte employs her own puns and malaprops. Her translation does reduce the length of the play to under two hours (played in one act), but does not deviate in its essentials from that of Wadsworth. However, Craig A. Miller has made Harlequin (along with Dimas), more of a burlesque comedian, and eschewed any ruefulness from the climax. Not only is this most apropos for an outdoor summer romp, it is valid. After all, having felt the joy of loving, it is certainly reasonable for her to now shed her shroud of stoicism and seek out romance. Miller effectively employs speeded up pantomimes set to lively period music prior to each scene, and you will enjoy the various moods of puzzlement which he has the on-stage performers assume as they pause to allow the drone of passing planes to abate.
Here, everything spins off from the exceptionally charming and bubbly performance of Mandy Olson. Olson brings a sly and ethereal quality to Leonide which sets the tone which sustains the entire production. Geoff Wilson (Agis) makes most agreeable partner for her. Greg Jackson (Harlequin) and Bryan Cogman (Dimas) are fine low comedians here. They have a sharp rapport in working with one another. A gentler clown, Alison Weller (Corine) displays an endearing combination of toughness and vulnerability.
Pamela Vogel succeeds in conveying the amusing ridiculousness of Leontine while maintaining her dignity. Okay, I admit it. I would have liked a tiny added touch of pathos from her in order to add a little density to the proceedings. Brian Dowd has yet to find the humor in his harsh Hermocrate.
This production has been staged so that all the action takes place in the garden of the estate of Hermocrate. It would be impossible for any indoor production of The Triumph of Love to match the sense of detailed natural beauty that set designer Jesse Dreikosen has been able to create on the grassy soil of the amphitheatre stage. There is an extensive series of low hedges in an elaborate pattern, a number of large topiary-like plants in large stone planters, statuary, and a fountain. This is backed by a very wide tall garden wall totally swathed with ivy. Through an open arch in this wall, we glimpse a cutout façade of the house. When the lights of Lighting Designer Danielle Almeida Wilson illuminate the full trees behind the stage, the naturalism and sense of depth that Dreikosen has created reaches its zenith. The lovely period costumes of Amy Ritchings complete the picture.
None of us can know just how Love was played when it premiered 270 odd years ago. Commedia d'el arte actually mixed high style and low humor, and who is to say to what degree each were employed by the Comedie Italienne of Paris and the Comedie Francaise in the 18th century (both troupes premiered Marivaux plays). The question of how close any new production of a Marivaux play is to the original is as irrelevant as it is unanswerable. The only question is how well it works. And you only have to observe the pleasure that the STNJ The Triumph of Love brings to a summer night to know that it works very well.
The Triumph of Love continues performances (Tues.-Sat. 8:15 pm/ Sun. 7:15 pm) through August 7, 2005 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's Outdoor Stage on the campus of St. Elizabeth College, 2 Convent Road, Morris Township, New Jersey. Box Office: 973-408-5600; on-line www.ShakespeareNJ.org.
The Triumph of Love by Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux; translated and adapted by Bonnie J. Monte; directed by Craig A. Miller