Right after its biggest box-office success to date with Shaw’s Man and Superman, California Shakespeare Theater debuts writer-director Lillian Groag’s new adaptation of the 1732 Marivaux comedy The Triumph of Love as a coproduction with San Jose Rep, where the production will move in September.
There’s just no getting around the fact that the first fifteen minutes or so consist of an interminable amount of exposition, although Groag’s lively staging and bright performances help move it along. Having inherited a throne illegitimately seized by her uncle, the princess is here, in drag, to seek out the rightful heir and hand over power to him. But as she’s fallen in love with him at first sight and he’s been raised to hate her, her scheme is to make him fall in love with her before revealing her identity, and anyone who stands in her way — well, she’ll just have to seduce them, too.
Once you get all that out of the way, the play is a constant delight, and the cast is uniformly excellent and full of surprises. Not only is it marvelous to watch Stacy Ross as Léonide, thinking quickly on her feet as she shifts stratagems and turning on the charm as if from a faucet, she does it so convincingly that no suspension of disbelief is necessary — everyone falls for her as soon as she puts the idea in their heads. It’s not just how well she dissembles that makes the performance so commanding, or else it would be hard to accept how cruelly she manipulates people to get what she wants. Even as the lies pile up, you can always see past them to Léonide’s heart, as she winces at complicating misstatements and hyperventilates when her ardor is unfeigned.
There isn’t much of an effort to make either Léonide or Catherine Castellanos as her amiable lady-in-waiting particularly masculine in drag — no exaggerated swaggering or deep voices — which is perfectly appropriate seeing as how freely the guise is abandoned when it suits the princess’ purposes. Jud Williford is a bundle of nervous energy as her beloved would-be Prince Agis, hilarious in his exasperation with all the uncertainties of first love. His gaping look of astonishment as he starts slowly putting two and two together is priceless.
Through it all capers Danny Scheie as Arlecchino, an outsize, Puckish presence leaping around the stage, clowning, conspiring, and always making a divine mess of things. Scheie strikes home even with the broadest of comic bits, especially when teamed with Ron Campbell’s rustic gardener Dimas. There’s a great running gag about how nobody knows who Arlecchino is or what the heck he’s doing there, a sly metacommentary on Marivaux having thrown in a popular commedia dell’arte character just for the heck of it. Soon enough, however, he falls into the routine of a servant around the place. Never mind that such a big deal is being made about whether Phocion can stay, but nobody seems to consider tossing this guy out.
The princess’ prey consists of Agis’ guardians, the philosopher Hermocrates, and his imperious sister Léontine, both of whom quickly become putty in her hands. Both Dan Hiatt’s Hermocrates and Domenique Lozano’s Léontine are almost too convincing in their descent from high-handedness to giddy swooning, because it’s as easy for the audience to buy their passion as it is for them to swallow Léonide’s line.
Because they’re not caricatures, the philosopher and his sister aren’t at all unsympathetic. They’re simply in Princess Léonide’s way, and she tramples them accordingly. In this love story, every happy ending is at someone else’s expense. It leaves a bittersweet tang to the requisite happily-ever-after, because more hearts have been broken than united.
All the elements of the production blend beautifully to move the story forward. Kate Edmunds’ garden set is fairly simple: sculpted hedges with just a few twigs sticking out to give the gardener something to snip; a peeing cherub fountain to enable a too-often-recurring bit of slapstick; and an oddly forbidding tangle of vines beyond the garden gate, like the thorns around Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Both it and Raquel Barreto’s ornate 18th-century French costumes are transformed in subtle ways as the action progresses.
As love blooms in the garden, red roses and apples gradually appear all over the set, and each time the characters reenter there’s more and more red on their outfits: black buttons gradually replaced with red on Hermocrates’ chest, Arlecchino’s green diamonds replaced with red, roses added to Léontine’s white dress, and so on. Russell H. Champa’s lighting and Jeff Mockus’ sound design are also seamlessly integrated. As people are swept up by Léonide’s romantic wiles, lights dim and waltz strains swell just for a moment. Whether love really triumphs in The Triumph of Love is left an open question, but there’s no question that Groag’s production is a flat-out triumph.