All this web of deceit was woven to win you, proof of my devotion.” So speaks Princess Leonide of Sparta (Stacy Ross), free of her disguise as a man and decked out in royal—and feminine—splendor, to Prince Agis (Jud Williford), son of a monarch whose throne was usurped by Leonide’s uncle, and object of her much, but never directly, professed devotion.
But it’s the web of deceit and its weaving, as much as the sometimes violent eruptions of passion by all concerned, which prove the real heart of the matter in Pierre Marivaux’s The Triumph of Love, as translated by Frederick Kluck and adapted and directed by Lillian Groag, at CalShakes in Orinda, a joint production with San Jose Rep.
The setup looks familiar enough, straight out of the ancient romances, as adopted by novelists and playwrights over the centuries for their own purposes, as familiar as Shakespeare’s comedies that feature cross-dressing and exile, or domestic potboilers which make the bittersweet point of innocent love being won through cynical machination.
But there’s more than one twist of the blade in this somewhat malign fairytale in which most of the players leave empty-handed—and broken-hearted—in the wake of the de rigueur happy ending.
At the start, two tricorn-hatted male forms slip through the gate (emblazoned with Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum”) surrounding the garden of reclusive philosopher Hermocrates (Dan Hiatt). They are actually the Princess and her lady-in-waiting (and miniature painter) Corinne (Catherine Castellanos) in disguise as gentlemen to effect the capture of Prince Agis’ heart, and his installation upon his rightful throne, as the Princess explains to Corinne.
That much is simple, and unchallenged by the audience, though Corinne, the auditor, wonders that the Princess doesn’t wish to do away with her seeming rival. But Leonide has seem Agis in the wood—and lost her heart.
This too goes unchallenged. But what quickly cuts loose from a simple—even hackneyed—deception, pitches and yaws every which way, as the audience is treated to a truly comic spectacle: every heart, no matter how carefully guarded or seemingly remote, male or female, falls to the fast-talking Princess, disguised as one “Phocion,” as she maneuvers to be allowed to stay in the philosopher’s retreat, to make her shot at his prize pupil and companion since childhood, throwing rustic calm into chaotic disorder.
“There’s not a man on earth a woman can’t bring down if she sets her mind to it!”
So declares the Princess in the first (or second or third) flush of amorous success. But her conquests, in cross-dress as Phocion, also cross the line from declarations of friendship, intimations of her real self and true and false revelations, to wooing the philosopher’s sister, Leontine (a wonderful Domenique Lozano, extraordinary in her timing, gestures and expressions—and fluttering walk), for the purpose of, well, shilling “Phocion” to Hermocrates, so that the suppliant would-be (and false) scholar might stay to study how to abandon his own passions!
The comedy gets fast and furious, from low slapstick to high comedy of repartee—though, especially at first, the detritus from old “I Love Lucy” and Warner Bros. cartoon schtick smothers Marivaux’s truly bittersweet irony.
Maybe the deepest ironies never set in, but the show is a triumph all of its own, mostly due to a marvellous cast, one mostly familiar to CalShakes—and many Bay Area—theatergoers. Ross, after starting out a bit rough for a princess, has wonderful exchanges with the others in repartee. Hiatt, who walks on in a kind of oriental snood, carrying a tome of Spinoza (which he drops, never really to pick up, at the unmasked lady’s first amorous declaration), is a constantly amusing spectacle of a distant, haughty “philosophe” (who sees through the Princess’s drag as a disguise, but not her declaration as a ruse), transformed into a lovesick tyro, his academic distain for the gentler emotions evaporates ...
But everybody’s good here and contributes to the comic malaise—and the essential comedy of Marivaux comes across. The underlings fare well, too. Ron Campbell as Dimas, the anachronistic Gabby Hates of a gardener in a French setting, puts in one of his most controlled, nuanced performances yet—a talented comic actor with a tendency to fly off the handle, mug and saw the air. But there’s none of that here—even in unnecessary routines involving a mysteriously valved mannequin-pis ... Danny Sheie as Arlecchino works well with Campbell in particular, but his insoucient style and strident voice isn’talways a fit, even for a Commedia clown.
“You say you’re in love with virtue, but you come here as its sworn enemy!” —“Aye, the enemy of what I adore.” Marivaux, the lightness of whose comedies belies a sometimes steely-eyed vision, has a few successors, like Giraudoux (sadly, hardly performed here anymore). His comic characters may seem to be more types than flesh and blood at first glance, but underneath the laughter, their hearts can truly break as they pantomime their way toward love.
Photograph by Kevin Berne. Catherine Castellanos, Danny Scheie and Stacy Ross in The Triumph of Love.