Monday, February 15, 2010

Marivaux meets the millennium in Island of Slaves.

Some twenty years ago, it seemed that no one had heard of Marivaux, and those that had merely thought of him as playing second fiddle forever to Molière. Nowadays, of course, you might be forgiven for reversing that ranking, as one of the Enlightenment's greatest authors has slowly edged back into the repertory. But it seems we prefer the second tier of his work to the first; plays like The Dispute and Island of Slaves - now in a broad but engaging production from Orfeo Group - seem to be seen far more often on our stages than The Double Inconstancy or The Game of Love and Chance. This is no doubt because we relate to the political edge of these works more than we do to the subtle arguments of the masterpieces - all of them delivered in a prose style, btw, that's so melodious it could be taken for verse (and which inspired its own epithet - "marivaudage").

Ah, well, I suppose every step forward requires at least one step back - and even if there's no way anyone could call this production "musical," second-tier Marivaux on a kazoo is still better than most of what's coming out of today's dramatists. But didn't we just see Island of Slaves two or three years ago, in a wild, Robert-Woodruff-on-acid (and when is he not on acid?) production at the A.R.T., you may ask? Yes, I think we did. In that version, Woodruff brought his usual paranoid intensity to bear with a vengeance: drag queens stalked the stage like amazons, and poor Karen MacDonald was actually strapped to a giant wheel and spun like a top! Yeah, that was lofty, all right.

Orfeo keeps something like the same familiar aesthetic, but doesn't go quite so far over the top, spinning or not. The eponymous archipelago is here a kind of pop junkyard, where spooky sound-effects echo off the dirty, Saw-like sewer-tiles, and folks roam about in punked-out, quasi- Louis Quatorze duds. The text has been cleverly updated and adapted by Neil Bartlett (who was also known to pop in at the A.R.T.) to maximum comic, but negligible poetic, effect. There are plenty of laughs, however, and the structure of the play is still there: two shipwrecked master-slave couples wash ashore on a desert isle, inhabited only by, yup, slaves - and a brutal regime of "re-education" for the helpless aristocrats begins. Marivaux's satire of the justifications for servitude (France had by his day only just abandoned its medieval near-serfdom) is of course terrific - but we realize he has a subtler argument up his sleeve (of course) as the freed slaves begin to descend to the same moral level as their former masters. This is where Woodruff began to paint with too broad a brush - here director Kathryn Walsh doesn't make the same mistake, but she doesn't exactly pull Marivaux's themes into tighter focus, either.

Indeed, Walsh often seems content to frame Island of Slaves as merely some kind of crass, wacky hoot. In one of the weirder director's notes I've ever read, she frets no end about the meaning of "author" and "authority" (we wouldn't want to be slaves to the text, now would we???) and let's us know that we're really the authors of what we're going to be watching.

Well, too bad none of us are Marivaux, huh! I guess we're just shit out of luck on that score. For make no mistake, Walsh has indeed nearly succeeded in eliminating the author from this production. She manages to get his ideas roughly over, in a TV-friendly, lowest-common-denominator kinda way, but that's about it. The Globe will love this, of course, but more experienced viewers may find it a bit tiresome. And why, precisely, do qualms over authorial authority only surface in the case of dead white males? I mean, does Ms. Walsh claim authorship of Toni Morrison's Beloved because she read it, or saw the movie?

But you know, it's all good (right?) - I'm trying hard not to hold its director's post-baccalaureate babble against this funny, sharply-designed production. A deeper problem, however, is that you can tell Walsh doesn't really care for the little sting coiled in Marivaux's insight that these slaves may be no better than their masters - because she doesn't let either her maid or her manservant slide very far toward perdition (so their eventual redemption doesn't really ring true, either). And I simply can't tell whether it hurts or helps that the aristocrats in this production aren't particularly poisonous, or make too much of an impression. The smart, strapping Hannah Husband is obviously miscast as the simpering Euphrosine, and Jared Craig is likeable but too lightweight as her comrade-in-arms, Iphicrates. Meanwhile Amanda J. Collins displays strong comic chops as lady's-maid Cleanthis, but oddly, she's got a bit more aristocratic porcelain in her composure than her boss does, and while she's quite funny, she skates along the surface of the role (until her final speech, which at last resonates with real frustration). And this is a problem, because Marivaux charts the temptations of power most clearly through her character - so if she doesn't have a real arc, in a way the play doesn't actually happen. Luckily Daniel Berger-Jones, a mainstay of Orfeo, is better as the protean master-of-ceremonies, Trivelin; he manages to morph from savage autocrat to ironically soothing bureaucrat at will, and on cue.

But the show really belongs to Risher Reddick, whose performance maybe owes more to Jackie Gleason (or Chris Farley) than it does to commedia dell'arte, but who nevertheless always knows just how to punch a punchline. His Harlequin is so sloppily likeable, in fact, and so dominates the production - sometimes this almost feels like a showcase - that he pretty much squashes flat any critique Marivaux might be attempting to construct of his character. Of course you can't blame a comedian for doing what he does best, but I do wish this Island of Slaves had more to offer than consensus politics and broad populism. Because with more internal character development, the show's strangely-frustrating ending might make some kind of sense; right now, despite the "edge" of the production, it rings politically false. Because in case you haven't noticed, the aristocrats in America have mastered that whole "populist" thang (see Palin, Sarah); indeed, they do it better than Ms. Walsh - or the other "authors" of her production - ever could. So maybe it's time we all began to move on to our own enlightenment about authors and their authority.

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