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.

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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.  

Every role here--from Schwartz's lusty, frog-throated gardener on up--is fully inhabited and elegantly delivered with a harmonious tempo that finesses but doesn't stampede the audience in the tiny Theatre Too space. You could make the argument that Jenni Tooley is miscast as the conniving, ruthless Leonide--I spent much of the first act arguing with myself. She is soft-voiced, doe-eyed, vaguely virginal in demeanor, and--let the hate mail begin--extremely girlish. But the consistency of her performance won me over by the second act: What she lacks in bearing she compensates for in raw appeal and crisply enunciated technique. The utter conviction with which she made her amorous exhortations from one cast member to another registered as precociousness, not a bad combination with the varieties of charm stirred in by the other actors.

The Triumph of Love runs through July 25. Call (214) 871-3300.

Kate McClaine, artistic director of Collected Works Theatre Company, is accustomed to confusion over her company's role in the Swiss Avenue Theater, one of Dallas' best intimate venues and also the source of some complaints from theater folk over the last couple years.

Now in the middle of its second 12-month season, Collected Works Theatre Company is, McClaine says, "both the resident company at Swiss Avenue Theater, and the space's management entity. Collected Works itself actually only puts on a couple shows a season. The rest of the year, we host different independent theater companies. We negotiate standard rental contracts with each company on an individual basis. Basically, we open up our facilities to them, and offer them production support, if they need it and we can give it."

There have been mutterings from some theater artists that Collected Works can be difficult to reach for negotiations about rental and difficult to work with because of strict managerial standards. McClaine, a 20-year veteran of theater across the Southwest and Canada, allows that there has been some truth to both, but she puts a slightly different spin on the rumors.

"I've had six staff members relocate to different parts of the country, so we've been seriously understaffed for a while," she says. "And once my husband and I were gone for nine days, and a new company called Dionysus & Apollo was trying to fax us because the deadline for negotiating the time they wanted was approaching. Our computers were down, and we didn't know it. I regret that happened. They suffered for it, and I think Collected Works' reputation has suffered for it too."

As far as the dictator rap, McClaine admits: "Collected Works was first instituted for policing duties. We had some young companies in here who messed with the wiring and physically altered the building, in some cases against city zoning codes. And we had companies selling candy bars for $5 each in the lobby. Collected Works has taken control of lobby and concessions, and we do expect some of these small companies to carry an element of responsibility beyond the creative. For a long time, artists who worked at the Swiss weren't used to people watching and saying, 'Is this legal? Is this safe?'"

There doesn't appear to be a shortage of artists who want to use the space, which was designed and built seven years ago by McClaine's husband Jim Pavey. Upcoming productions at the Swiss include work by Soul Rep, The Actors Group, Our Endeavors, and a collaboration with some members of 11th Street Theatre Project. However controversial, McClaine has a mission: to create a central support source for all Dallas' small theater companies that will increase audiences for everyone.

"There has been some pooling of resources, between people like Our Endeavors and the Undermain," she notes. "But for the most part, these are connections between individuals. We'd really like to see a larger sharing from company to company to company. The big organizations like the Dallas Theatre League and S.T.A.G.E. are great starts, but they're limited only to members. I love the idea of Dallas theater awards, but with the Theatre League's Leon Rabins, you have to be a member to get one, and the members vote on them. That seems strange. And why can't theater companies get together and host performances for local corporations to attract more industrial work for the actors?  

"We envision a scene where space and money problems are addressed by the theaters themselves through cooperation on a grand scale. We've stumbled some on our mission, but that's what Collected Works is trying to do right now.

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