Trysts in Toledo: Theatre Three's 17th-Century Nunsense Doesn't Wear Well

Written by a nun, Theatre Three's Trysts in Toledo dusts off an old, unconventional comedy

As the Tina Fey of the 17th century, Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz wrote sly comedy that by all accounts cracked up audiences in the parlors and palaces of Mexican viceroys and Spanish nobility. Her works for the stage made light of then-popular cloak-and-dagger love triangles and boldly satirized the thwarted status of women in the 1600s. Both themes dominate Trysts in Toledo, a new translation of the nun's most famous comedy, Los Empeños de una Casa (The Pawns of the House), now running at Theatre Three.

So how does a costume farce from 1683 hold up? About as well as Fey's Sarah Palin sketches will for audiences who glimpse them in holographic reruns several centuries from now (and here's hoping Palin remains only an amusing, forgettable flyspeck on American comedy history).

Played in period dress on a Vermeer-inspired set, Trysts should be Molière con mole, saucy comedy about mistaken identities and upstairs-downstairs romances. But instead of boisterous fun, it's a bust. The clunky English adaptation by Theatre Three artistic director Jac Alder keeps the show trussed up in stilted language ("the man for whom I am currently smitten" is how one character describes her sweetheart) and confusing characterizations (hard to tell Don Carlos from Don Juan from Don Pedro until too late in the evening to care).

Holy Toledo! Lydia Mackay, Ginneh Thomas and Gregory Lush spew comedy Spanglish in Trysts in Toledo at Theatre Three.
Farah White
Holy Toledo! Lydia Mackay, Ginneh Thomas and Gregory Lush spew comedy Spanglish in Trysts in Toledo at Theatre Three.

Wordy gags about codpieces and petticoats don't warrant many chuckles, even from T3's core audience of ancients. (Side note: This theater had better worry now how to get some younger ticket-buyers in the door. Plays like this sure aren't the answer. How old is the crowd here? The most popular beverage at intermission is a shot of Ensure. One bad flu epidemic and the next opening night will be attended only by four chubby critics and the life partners of whoever's in the cast.)

Trysts in Toledo wants badly to erupt into a madcap, merry romp about smart women and stupid men, but Alder's script, directed by Jeffrey Schmidt (who also designed the scenery), begins in utter disarray and stays bogged down for most of two acts. Early scenes go by in a blur of brocade-wearing actors galloping across the stage, babbling about various Dons and Doñas. Dialogue includes a good amount of Spanglish—you say Toledo, they say Toe-LAY-tho—that eventually gives way to awkwardly phrased speeches that don't help the audience navigate the corn maze of plotlines. The original playwright's salient points about women being confined to their father's homes while the men they love gallivant wherever they choose are lost in the translation.

At the center of the action in Trysts is the assertive daughter of the house, Doña Ana (Lydia Mackay, washed out in a costume the same color as her hair). She uses two handsome gents, Don Carlos (Thiago Martins) and Don Pedro (Gregory Lush), as pawns in her personal chess game. The men compete for the love of Doña Leonor (Ginneh J. Thomas), but discover after a candlelit swordfight that the object of their lust is actually a male servant named Castaño (Jeff Swearingen) dressed in Leonor's clothes. Castaño, meanwhile, is in love with the servant Celia (Aleisha Force), though that doesn't matter, as nothing much happens between them.

Since the story is a mish-mosh of schemes and arguments, many of them dead-ending without resolution, and the conversations a higglety-piggle of lines that sometimes rhyme but often don't, it's hard to find much reason for excitement regarding Trysts in Toledo. Until, that is, actors Swearingen and Lush take the stage.

A dark-haired devil who became a strong leading man in roles at T3 over the past two seasons, Lush enters late in the first half, adopting the attitude as Don Pedro that Mandy Patinkin did as Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. He's the ridiculously arrogant, goofy dandy in Trysts, pawing the ground in knee-high black boots like a petulant bull and rolling his R's several seconds too long. With every pose Lush adds an extra wiggle of his tush for effect. Black hair brilliantined against his head, Lush's Don Pedro looks like he took a wrong turn on the way to a portrait sitting for Diego Velàzquez. The actor plays every moment with a wink and silly smirk.

Swearingen, who won local acting awards last year for his work in Matt Lyle's comedy The Boxer, steps out of the stuffy classical acting style of Trysts for a blazing bit of improv (as indicated in the funny nun's original). In the only laugh-out-loud moments in the show, Swearingen's Castaño fools the snooty Dons by donning the multi-layered skirts of Doña Leonor. Alone onstage, the actor begs the help of audience members in shucking his servant togs and wriggling into the billowing blue cloud of Leonor's outfit (designer Bruce R. Coleman's elegant costumes drip with fringes and crystals).

Swearingen sustains the bit for a good 10 minutes, hitting all four sides of T3's acting space to play with the crowd. When he says after struggling into the enormous dress, "All this Leonoring is so boring," he couldn't be more wrong. His solitary comic turn is the bright spot in an otherwise ho-hum affair.

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Audiences are sparse, production budgets shrinking, but new theater troupes keep popping up, adding to the more than 50 professional and semi-professional companies currently competing for box-office dollars in Dallas and Fort Worth. The local premiere of Patrick Marber's award-winning 1997 drama Closer (opening March 27) will be the first show by the new Enter Stage Left company. Producer Jessica McCartney says "it's a scary time to start a company" but she hopes to appeal to young audiences with "sexy shows, well-written scripts and honest language." Closer is all that, with an extra helping of nudity.

Upstart Productions drew critical raves and strong ticket sales with their first show, Suzan-Lori Parks' two-man drama Topdog/Underdog, at The Dallas Hub in November. Their next is Kenneth Lonergan's acerbic "Me Generation" drama This Is Our Youth, opening March 6. Sign that they're really serious about quality: René Moreno will direct.

Shortly after winning critical raves and winning over sell-out crowds at Dallas Children's Theater for their silent comedy The Boxer, playwright Matt Lyle and actress-wife Kim moved from Dallas to Chicago to pursue improv training with the star-spawning Second City. Lyle recently starred in a short Off-Broadway run of Tom Sime's play My Favorite Animal but then returned to Chicago. His words will be back in Dallas in February with the premiere of his play Hello Human Female by the Audacity Theatre Lab at Ochre House on Exposition Avenue.

Dallas Theater Center's first production of 2009 will be In the Beginning, opening January 21. Kevin Moriarty directs the retelling of Genesis in a medieval style. But it's the show ending December 28 that will be the answer to some prayers. After their bows at every performance of A Christmas Carol, cast members have asked the audience for donations to the North Texas Food Bank. DTC PR guy Jacob Ciganeiro reports that theatergoers over Carol's month-long run have given close to $25,000, averaging $1,000 per night.

Theater that entertains, inspires and feeds hungry families—nice way to ring down the curtain on another year.

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