KPBS AIRDATE: JULY 27, 1994
They were separated by style, substance and a century, but now they’re as close as cousins. The seventeenth century comic playwright Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux snuggles up to nineteenth century Naturalistic novelist Emile Zola, compliments of the La Jolla Playhouse.
The Playhouse has done it again: pairing two disparate but daring and dramatic soul-mates. The experiment in repertory was a matchmaking miracle two years ago, bringing us breathtaking productions of “Marisol” and “The Swan.” This year’s encore is equally dynamic: old work instead of new, but goosed and gussied up to magnificence. A veritable tour de force de France.
Everything done, both in the comedy and the tragedy, is done in the name of love. In Marivaux’s “The Triumph of Love,” the princess Léonide has fallen (from afar) for Agis, the rightful heir to her throne. In order to get near him, she must invade the secluded, sheltered domicile of his father-figure/philosopher, Hermocrate. Using a variety of disguises and allowing no obstacles to stand in her way, she proceeds to seduce the old doubter Hermocrate, his prissy, spinster sister and the beloved Agis. Though she claims her “motives are praiseworthy… (her) mission… blameless,” she manages to give extreme false hope to two older people, and to leave them hopeless and humiliated.
In Zola’s “Thérese Raquin,” an exuberant orphan, suffocated into near-stupor, is trapped in a stagnant, lifeless marriage until she runs into the brute, beastly sexual force of Laurent. Their passion propels them to drown the sickly husband Camille, but they are destroyed by their guilt, their remorse and the inexorable forces of fate.
Love doesn’t exactly conquer all in either play. But the casts master the characters. Angie Phillips has the daunting lead role in both plays. In “Triumph,” she is smart, cunning and totally in control, if a bit too unvarying across disguises. In “Therese” she is sexy, sultry and spectacular, a haunted spectre who changes clothing too much but remains riveting. Paul Giamatti is a hilarious Harlequin in “Triumph,” and a not-so-sickly Camille in “Thérese,” but his second act post-mortem comeback is grandly ghoulish. David Hunt draws both his characters a little less deftly; he is cute but not go-through-hell irresistible as Agis, and not quite robust and beastly enough as Laurent, but the sexual sparks definitely fly. It is Beth Dixon, as the old spinster and as Madame Raquin, who gets the final spotlight in both plays. Her face is priceless, her horror bone-chilling.
The updates of these two under-read writers — the new translation of Marivaux by James Magruder, former literary manager at the Playhouse, and New York playwright Neal Bell’s recent adaptation of Zola’s novel — respect the originals while maintaining modern-day relevance. Love, lust, vanity, greed, envy and betrayal will never be out of date. And in the hands of masterful directors, we are amazed, all over again, by the power and ferocity of love.
Lisa Peterson has directed “Triumph” with delicious precision, deftly juggling the comedy without ignoring the final indignity. Marina Draghici’s arid garden is a startling inverse of Jack Taggart’s lush costumes.
Michael Greif’s staging of “Therese” is so darkly, frenetically filmic at first, and then so imagistic and macabre later, that he brings exciting expectations to his new role of artistic director at the Playhouse. Here, the sound, lighting and subtle special effects are mesmerizing. The text and all the senses foreshadow the disaster to come. As in Zola’s Naturalistic philosophy, the future is predetermined.
With an audacious beginning like this, the future of the Playhouse should be assured, too.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.