Frothfest

New Theatre Company whips up a slight but tasty 18th-century meringue

The metamorphosis of Theatre Three's downstairs rehearsal space into the almost full-fledged black box known as Theatre Too is a particularly gratifying transformation for anyone who thinks that having a clear view of the actor's face is needed for a rich theatrical experience. This is by no means a commonly shared sentiment--regular patrons of outdoor Shakespeare in Dallas and Fort Worth drink up the wide-angle bombast of the actors almost as fast as the zinfandel they bring, while I'm busy trying to figure out what voice is coming out of which actor.

Dallas arts patron Claude Albritton, with acumen draped in a Texas drawl, has a name for production intimacy (or indiscretion, if all engines are firing at the performance of a particularly insightful script). He dubbed this most fragile of art forms "living room theater," a phrase that encapsulates both space proximity and the feeling that good actors have invited you inside their parlor for a whispered confession. If the playwright strikes a chord that resonates with your life at that moment, you look around and realize it's your parlor too.

Theatre Too is a cozy living room where strangers dangle their naughty bits in front of you (attention, Dallas vice squad--this is just a metaphor). There's a lot of artful dangling in New Theatre Company's production of Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux's The Triumph of Love. This staging of Marivaux's gender-bent 1722 farce manages to feel at once lean, thanks to the direction of former Dallas Theater Center dramaturg Walter Bilderback, and lush, thanks to the lovely costumes and sumptuous English garden set created by New Theatre artistic director Bruce Coleman. Coleman must greet every dawn with a hearty breakfast of greasepaint on toasted stage boards--his theatrical imagination is testimony to the fact that black box need not equal minimalism.

Marivaux suffered a Pyrrhic artistic victory--people waited until he was dead a long time to declare him a master. He enjoyed regular successes as a writer of comedy in France during the mid-18th century, but was largely dismissed as a Neil Simonesque hack--a reliable box office draw rather than a contributor to the sacred French stage canon. This was largely because of distrust on two counts--he wrote predominately for Comedie-Italienne, a group of Italian commedia dell'arte actors who positioned themselves in direct competition with the nearby Comedie-Francaise, which was full of--as you might've guessed--French comic actors. The extremely nationalistic French critics would have outright torpedoed Marivaux if not for his obvious talents. Moreover, he had the gall to put women in the driver's seat of most of his farces. Several European actresses of the 20th century sank their pointy teeth into Marivaux's wily, carousing heroines, which prompted the revival of interest in him 200 years later.

Indeed, one of the startling things about The Triumph of Love is watching its rapacious female protagonist woo men and women with bloodthirsty skill. Ultimately, it's in service to a very domestic goal--the reinstatement of a royal line cast out by a bloody coup. A woman could get away with such shameless sexual manipulation only if her mission were to become a subservient wife, which makes the behavior all the more deliciously satirical. This protagonist employs the heart of a shark to land a position where she may swim humbly and faithfully beside her husband. The contemporary possibilities in such an irony are not lost on translator James Magruder, a former classmate of director Bilderback's: He pushes for a more emotionally complex reading of everyone, in the process throwing the play's homoerotic undertones into sharper relief.

The play is so simple, it's practically plotless, and could easily take place in real time, so instantaneously does our heroine leap into the fray. We watch as the resourceful Princess Leonide (Jenni Tooley) and her reluctant maidservant Corine (Constance Gold) disguise themselves as men and invade the garden of an imperious scholar (Jim Jorgensen) and his spinster sister (Charlotte Akin Jorgensen). They're the guardians of young prince Agis (Derik Webb), whose royal father was deposed by his general. Leonide is the current, "illegitimate" heir to the throne, and she loves Agis. The male drag is used to get past the brother and sister and close to Agis, where it will be abandoned when emotional defenses are down. Aiding her for profit are a clownish gardener (Jeremy Schwartz) and manservant (Alberto Ramirez Jr.), who serve as salacious go-betweens to hurry the actors along into the inevitable denouement.

Leonide's gender deception exposes unsuspected emotional layers in all three members of this gratuitously intellectual household. She is a debonair, intuitive, ruthless Lothario and winds up having the trio fall in love with her--in one case, thinking she's a man, and in the other two, knowing she's a woman.

The biggest criticism you could offer a play as meringue-frothy as The Triumph of Love, even with a translation as subtle as Magruder's, is that it's simply too full of air. Farce can either disarm us with laughter and then ambush us with a mirror reflection of our foibles, or it can remind us that Three's Company had its roots in the acknowledged masters of the French stage. The distinction is an extremely narrow one, and can depend as much on the mind-set of the viewer as on how much humanity and pathos the farceur has chosen to emphasize. But even in the most charitable of interpretations, Magruder's translation of Marivaux's romp falls somewhere in between. What rescues it from the merely diversionary--or, on the other hand, grotesque burlesque--is a tireless, winsome cast, working every angle they can to engage you with characters and situations that are familiar.

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