Monday, September 23, 2013

Theater Review: La Dispute -- Hartford Stage

La Real Dispute Could be Why This Play is the Second Repertory Piece with Hartford Stage's Macbeth
By Lauren Yarger
Just who was unfaithful first: Man or Woman? If that’s a burning philosophical question you can’t wait to have answered, then Marivaux’ 18th century play La Dispute, opening Hartford Stage’s 50th anniversary season, is just the ticket for you.

A prince (Grant Goodman) and his mistress, Hermianne, (Kate MacCluggage), have gotten into a dispute about just that subject while frolicking in the countryside (depicted by Set Designer Jedediah Ike by a swirly mesh of white, wrought-iron-like trees surrounding a sort of courtyard). Fortunately, the prince’s father also had gotten into the same discussion about 18 years ago and to solve the mystery, he ordered that two infant boys and two infant girls be raised in isolation, separate from the rest of the world, cared for only by servants Carise and Mesrou (Kate Forbes and David Manis). The idea is to recreate a Garden of Eden environment when they are grown to find out what they do naturally when they meet. The children are now grown and the prince orders the experiment to begin.

The court retreats to the treetops to observe the drama unfold below. Églé is released into this new world and immediately becomes enraptured by the first sight she ever has had of her own image in a stream. Also exciting her is the look of Azor (Jeffrey Omura) who bursts onto the scene, equally delighted by Églé, especially by her hands, which he can’t stop kissing.

Separately, Adine (Mahira Kakkar) and Mesrin (Philippe Bowgen) are united and the couples are “in love.” The trouble starts, however, when Églé and Adine stumble upon each other. Jealousy immediately flares between the women who try to get each other to admit the superior beauty of the other. When Mesrin spies Églé and is willing to forsake Adine’s beauty and Azor’s friendship to possess her, Églé suddenly finds Azor’s hand kissing irritating. Testosterone starts surging as the men compete (with the help of bouncy fight choreography by J. David Brimmer) to the amusement of the onlooking courtiers.

The play comes from a time during the court of Louis XV and the Great Enlightenment when grand fetes and debates about science and philosophy were all the rage (there is a helpful write up in the program by Hartford Stage’s Senior Dramaturg and Director of New Play Development Elizabeth Williamson, who translated the play and co-adapted it with Director Darko Tresnjak.) The question it raises in the 21st Century, however, is why present it now – especially in repertory with Macbeth? Hartford Stage is boasting a return to its classical roots by presenting both plays in repertory (the same cast performs in both), but there must be more interesting second pieces to offer.

The means to which this group goes to try to find the answer to a question that really is irrelevant seems outrageous. Four infants are deprived of a normal life so they can be objects in an experiment for the amusement of very wealthy courtiers who apparently have nothing better to do with their time? And even with a run time clocking in at just a little over an hour, the dispute seems stretched. Églé, for example, mistakes Azor for a “she” for a while until corrected by Mesrou, who raised her. He obviously is a “he” paired with the “she” of Carise, so the girl’s inability to understand the existence of another sex is confusing and exists only to pad out the ridiculous premise.

There are a few funny moments, to be sure, the most amusing of which come from Églé’s constant delight in her appearance in all forms – in the stream, in a portrait, in a mirror -- and her belief that everyone else in the world (all five of them) surely must be as smitten with her beauty too.

It’s interesting to get a glimpse of the era: we hear a few strains of music on the harpsichord (Jane Shaw, sound design), Joshua Pearson creates the costumes, complete with a panier hoop skirt for Hermianne and elegant court apparel for the men, and Brittany Hartman designs the period wigs and hair. The piece seems a waste of the talents of Forbes, Manis and MacCluggage, however. Hopefully they get a little more to do when they play Lady Macbeth, Duncan and Lady MacDuff in the other repertory piece, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which opens Wednesday, Sept. 25. (Even the trees seem to be chomping at the bit to transform themselves into Birnam Wood).

La Dispute runs through Nov. 10 with a varied performance schedule. Check the calendar. Tickets $25-$85 (860) 527-5151;
Front: Kate MacCluggage, Grant Goodman; Back: Tom Foran, Noble Shropshire, Robert Eli, Jake, Loewenthal. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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