By Pat Launer
A Seagull flew over the UC ridge
And a Cygnet provided A View from the Bridge
A range of takes on the mating dance
It’s all part of The Game of Love and Chance.
Several years ago, translator/director Stephen Wadsworth single-handedly launched the American revival of the 18th-century French playwright Marivaux, with his production of “The Triumph of Love.” Now, Moonlight Stage Productions has scored the rights to “The Game of Love and Chance,” under the dexterous direction of that master of comic timing, Jimmy Saba.
[fyi, Wadsworth, recently here at La Jolla Playhouse to direct “Fraulein Else,” will be back again next spring, at the Globe this time, to preside over his adaptation of Molière’s “Don Juan.”]
Wadsworth definitely has a way with the French farce, and his clever treatment of Marivaux’s sly wit and wisdom shine through in “Game.” Written in 1730, the play manages to be of its time and ours, skewering both the class system of 18th century France and our own modern machinations in pursuing relationships and true love.
This production makes theater magic on several levels, marrying not only the two couples onstage, but also two French masters. The French painter Watteau died nine years before “The Game of Love and Chance” was written, but the painter got his start as an apprentice to a stage set designer, and with a wink-nudge très franςais, his canvases served as inspiration for Moonlight’s guest designer, Mike Buckley. Watteau and Pierre Carlet de Chamberlin de Marivaux (who may or may not have ever met) worked in different artistic media, but they shared an ability to reveal the subtleties of romantic and social ideals, morals and emotions. It was a stroke of genius to intermingle the two. Buckley’s set is brilliant and beautiful, a huge faux-Watteau painting serving as backdrop (a doorway deftly concealed within), ornately framed in gold, juxtaposed with other gilt frames, all slightly askew, as are the actions and reactions of the characters onstage. Cherubic, golden angels hover above, and formal greenery and marble statuary flank the decidedly romantic surroundings. Luscious setting, well lit (Buckley again) and attractively attired (elaborate, colorful costumes designed by Leslie Malitz).
The plot goes something like this. Silvia’s father has decided it is time for her to marry and has arranged for her to wed Dorante, the son of his oldest friend. However, the young daughter is a bit cynical, having seen too many unhappy marriages, so her father allows her to switch roles with her maid in order to observe Dorante more freely when he arrives to meet and woo her. But unbeknownst to her, Dorante made exactly the same kind of switch with his valet, so he can more accurately scrutinize his intended. In the ensuing mélée, Dorante and Silvia, each thinking the other is but a servant, fall in love, as do the maid and valet. In each supposedly mismatched pair, reason tells them they shouldn’t fall but their hearts push them over the cliff. It’s a delectable comedy of deception, innuendo and mistaken identity, replete with some rather contemporary (if bitchy) tests of love. Everything comes out fine, of course; after the comedy of errors, all’s well that ends well.
Saba has chosen a delicious cast and they play the “Game” to the hilt. Jennifer Austin is delightful as Silvia and Lisel Gorell-Getz is clever and cunning as her maid, Lisette. Phillip Dunbridge makes a dashing and earnest Dorante and Spencer Moses is goofy and hilariously graceless as Harlequin. He and Gorell-Getz are perfectly timed in their inanity. Don Loper takes his fatherhood seriously but David McBean is way over the top as Silvia’s foppish brother. His ultra-fey prancing would never convince anyone (let alone the astute Dorante) that he was a genuine suitor for Silvia’s hand. His style is extremely different from everyone else’s onstage, and it seems mis-conceived. But he gets lots of laughs nonetheless.
If you need a few laughs yourself, and maybe a re-consideration of love, this show is not to be missed.
BIRD IS THE WORD
On its closing weekend, I caught “The Seagull” (so to speak) at UCSD. In the pursuit of Chekhov, their “Three Sisters” was just about flawless in January, and brought new insights and humor to the piece. But the “Seagull” somehow flew away from them. In all fairness, the earlier production was directed by Kyle Donnelly, head of the actor training program, and included faculty members in the cast (e.g., the wonderful Jim Winker). This was purely a student effort (directed by second year grad student Larissa Kikernot) and though this cannot always be said at UCSD, it showed.
The atmosphere was extremely un-Chekovian, both in setting and character (for example, Shimrayev, the steward, goes screaming about, angrily mouthing off at everyone. Could this actually be a servant talking to his upper-class bosses? Unimaginable). Konstantin, instead of being a brooding, frustrated artiste, comes off as a cipher; we don’t know who he is or what he really wants… except Nina. Trigorin, the writer/playboy, is also less than one might hope — in the romantic and artistic realms. Only Nina (Christine Albright), the disillusioned actress and Arkadina (Lisa Velten), the selfish actress and sometime-mother of Konstantin, seem to be in the right play. Albright is so wide-eyed and hopeful and ingenuous at the beginning, and so bedraggled after she has been abandoned. Velten shows an appropriate amount of haughtiness and desperation. There are moments of credibility in the work of Jose Chavarry, Alex Cranmer, Brad Fleisher, Colette Beauvais and Katherine Sigismund, and the violin playing of Lindsey Olsen is suitably mournful. But sadly, in their inconsistency and variety of acting styles, the characters keep us at a distance; we are not engaged by them. We are too distracted by the scenery — lovely though it may be, with its jumble of old stage lights, painterly panels of trees, peeling wall-paint, stacked wood– clumsily and noisily moved around repeatedly. There is more humor than heart here; much is played for laughs, and we don’t really care what happens to these characters, their honest humanity, their inadequate grasp on the fundamentals of living which leads to tragic consequences. If we can see through some of the dross of the production, we can appreciate some of the depth and humanity of the play.
BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATERS
“The guy ain’t right . . . He has blond hair . . . He looks like a chorus girl . . . He sings . . . He cooks . . . If ya close the paper real fast, you could blow him over!” The litany of deprecating remarks that Brooklyn dockworker Eddie Carbone spews about his wife’s immigrant cousin, Rodolpho, is a virtual catalogue of gay stereotypes. When Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” premiered on Broadway in 1955, such insinuations were lethal weapons. For the audience, the climactic moment when Eddie attempts to “prove” Rodolpho’s queerness by planting a kiss on his lips could not have been more horrifying if he’d hacked him to death with a carving knife.
“Bridge” was widely considered to be “about” homosexuality, so much so that the Lord Chamberlain, England’s puritanical public censor, initially banned the play from the London stage. Today we understand that the play is about (among many other things) homophobia, identity and incest. Consumed with guilty desire for his teenage niece and insecure about his inability to perform sexually with his wife Beatrice, Eddie turns to gay-bashing rather than face the painful truth about himself.
Eddie is an Everyman, a good man, a family man, respected in his community. But his personal domestic dilemma, his unfathomable and unbearable passion for his niece, along with his stubborn pride, bring about his downfall. In this early play, Arthur Miller turned to the dramatic traditions of the classical Greek tragedy, confronting the audience with a predetermined outcome. Alfieri, the lawyer who participates in but also narrates the story, serves as the Greek chorus. Eddie’s tragic flaws (and his ‘Electra complex’) destroy him. Woven throughout the play are themes and questions of love, honor, ethics, envy, betrayal and justice. Codes and expectations of behavior play an important role. Identity is destiny. In this waterfront neighborhood, Italian immigrant workers, cast adrift by poverty, live on the edges of the American dream; they are bound by Italian codes of honor and justice, family values and the strict laws of US immigration.
The drama crackles with tension and betrayals as Eddie’s obsession spirals out of control and forces him to act in ways that destroy his family, his community and his life. If the play were written today, it would be considered a kitchen-sink melodrama, with its unit set, deeply observed characters, muscular writing, steamroller narrative and heart-stopping climax. Many speculate about the political circumstances that inspired the story. Was it really about Elia Kazan’s ‘naming names’ to the House Un-American Activities Committee? Was the over-protective admonition to Catherine: “You’re walking wavy,” actually referring to Miller’s wife Marilyn Monroe? Those questions become less important, ultimately than: Does the play work today? Does it have something to say to modern audiences? Could these characters and situations still exist?
Renaissance Theatre director George Flint certainly thinks so, and his marvelously taut, riveting production confirms his assertion. Homophobia is alive and well; so is an ‘immigrant problem,’ as current newcomers are called upon to register, and the rest of us are asked to be ‘on the alert’ for illegals, potential terrorists. Incest and betrayal? Timeless. Not to mention fathers who can’t let their ‘little girls’ grow up and leave the nest. Or wives who don’t condone their husband’s acts, but can’t condemn or oppose them, either. There are so many layers of drama here. The only element that doesn’t quite work is the lawyer Alfieri, who sashays in and out of the action and tells us what to think. That ‘chorus’ conceit feels dusty and unnecessary, though Charlie Riendeau does what he can with the role. With his magnificent cast, Flint extracts and explores the myriad moments of extreme dramatic tension in the play and the audience is transported.
This is an ensemble par excellence. Jesse MacKinnon is both frightening and familiar as Eddie, fiercely devoted to his family, so stubborn in his rightness, and so inexorably bound for self-destruction. This Eddie is a bit less sympathetic than in the first reading of the play some months ago; this time, MacKinnon shows his cards sooner, revealing both his anger and his obsession too early. But at the climactic moments, he takes your breath away. As his devoted but dispirited wife, Beatrice, Susan Denaker is magnificent; there isn’t a false note in her flawless performance. She is a good-hearted woman, wife and aunt, trying to come to grips with the emotional/sexual distance of her husband and the jealousy it’s fomenting in her. Jessica John is lovely as young Catherine, a charming mix of innocent adolescent affection and blossoming seductiveness; at times, on the night I was there, she seemed to lose focus and was obviously acting rather than inhabiting the character, but those moments were fleeting, and by and large, she gives a fine, nuanced performance. Michael Lamendola as the blond Italian, Rodolpho, is convincing and charming, but a bit more machismo and less limp-wrist in his battle with Eddie would have made his portrayal even more potent (and Eddie’s accusations less unresolved). J.E. Creaghe grows in stature and significance over the course of the evening, as the Italian cousin who takes justice into his own hands. Joe Salazzo is sturdy and credible in the dual roles of longshoreman and Immigration Officer.
David Weiner’s set represents a simple, lower-class living space, unnaturally barren, with only a cross and faded photos adorning the discolored walls. Jeanne Reith’s costumes are period-perfect, Jennifer Setlow’s lighting is aptly moody and Michael Shapiro’s sound design evokes the docks and the city.
Renaissance continues its commitment to 20th century classics. There’s damn good reason to revisit these plays, and inspiring productions like this deserve to be seen by a wide audience. If you’re a theater-maker or a theatergoer, you owe it to yourself to spend an evening with a master. Though his plays were products of a particular time, Arthur Miller’s work never goes out of style; the drama and human insights are compelling, stirring and spellbinding.
THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“A View from the Bridge” –spectacular ensemble work from Renaissance Theatre, in a play that never goes out of style; at Cygnet Theatre (near SDSU) through December 14
“The Game of Love and Chance” — delightful French farce, deliciously done; Moonlight Stage Productions at the Avo Playhouse in Vista through November 23
“The Boys Next Door” — touching, often humorous play, wonderful performances; at Lamb’s Players Theatre; EXTENDED through November 23
“Beehive” — one of San Diego’s longest-running musical hits, is closing soon; all those great girl-group songs; irresistible! At the Theatre in Old Town, through January 4 only.
…and you definitely shouldn’t miss the greatest assemblage of San Diego performing arts talent under one roof on one night — BRAVO, this Saturday at the Westgate. Be there!!
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.