Sunday, September 15, 2013

The puritan lurking within The Libertine

The talented cast of The Libertine.

When it first swaggers on stage, Stephen Jeffreys' The Libertine seems truly seductive - rather like its eponymous hero, John Wilmot (the 2nd Earl of Rochester), a notorious Restoration rake.  Indeed, Jeffreys' dialogue alone amounts to an astounding feat of ventriloquy: his oratory seems to echo directly from the underbelly of the seventeenth century, and the playwright off-handedly exhibits an easy command of the intellectual debates of his period, as well as a pleasing willingness to challenge his audience. (Perhaps this intellectual edge alone attracted the attention of Johnny Depp, who starred in a film version.) "You will not like me," the Earl even sneers to us in his opening lines - his lip in a permanent curl - although we imagine that the playwright will eventually prove him wrong.

But alas, that prediction proves all too true - basically because we end up not liking Jeffreys' play, as his gifts for period cadence (and morbid meta-theatre) don't extend to narrative arc. Which is too bad, given the brilliance of the current version being performed at the Calderwood Pavilion, in a joint production of the brand-new Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston and New York's Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company. Indeed, I hate to post a negative notice because there's so much clever originality in the show's striking staging - and most of the acting likewise hews to a high (if rapid-fire) standard. Even the original music is pretty good (and what's more, everyone who is asked to sing actually can). As strange as it sounds, the Bridge Rep and Playhouse Creatures have pulled off the odd feat of announcing their star status by mounting something like an ambitious flop.

The 2nd Earl of Rochester, of course, would have appreciated that irony. For he was a classic example of what the French call a poète maudit (literally, "cursed poet"). Only unlike later avatars of the role (Baudelaire, Rimbaud), Wilmot was all but secretly maudit; he saw little of his work actually published during his brief life - indeed, his sardonic canon, such as it is, didn't emerge for years (actually, centuries). He was famous, however, among the literati of the Restoration - Marvell described him as the best satirist in England, and many believed he personified the lusty reaction to Puritanism that typified the age. But Rochester was at least as notorious among the members of his class for what amounted to an uncontrollable penchant for self-destruction.

But then the Earl (below) was also burdened with little money he could call his own, and both a sternly Puritan mother and a pleasure-loving, war-hero father (who personally engineered the rescue of Charles II from the Roundheads, ensuring royal favor for his son). This may explain much of his nihilistically impulsive nature - which led to either daring military successes, or embarrassing personal scandals, depending on circumstances.  Of course over time, Venus is a harsher mistress than Mars is a master, and by his thirtieth year Rochester was already riddled with venereal disease (he had to attend the House of Lords sporting a nose made of silver, because his own had fallen off).  He was dead - and all but unrecognizable - by the age of 33.

So his is a sobering story, and playwright Jeffreys seems bent on teaching us its moral (in, admittedly, as sophisticated a manner as possible).  Which may explain why he makes his Earl so flaccid a rake - the only love-making we see in the play is a grim little round of failed fellatio - and why his hero seems to lack not only an erection but even an antagonist, or some convincing conflict to drive his descent.  But then, beyond its syphilitic demi-monde, Jeffreys' Restoration hardly seems as corrupt as the real thing; Charles II (Richard Wayne, an actor as towering as the real-life Charles) comes off as a fairly reasonable and benevolent monarch, and even the whores talk friendly common sense to their self-loathing john.

Wilmot's portrait - with his first proboscis.
Rochester's descent only accelerates, however - or, well, it continues; it doesn't accelerate. The playwright treats several historical events without actually connecting any thematic dots, and he undermines the one cause the Earl took up - the career of the actress Elizabeth Barry - by letting their dialogue devolve into dialectic (if the playwright had only treated this romance with more sympathy, he'd have had a ready-made spine for his play).

Still, there are some foul pleasures to be savored over the course of the script, particularly when Jeffreys stages scraps of two actual Restoration travesties (which may have dripped from Rochester's pen): "Signior Dildo" and Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery (featuring such characters as "Cuntigratia" and "Fuckadilla"), which the actors perform with a relish familiar to devotees of downtown Manhattan.  And all this is cute, of course - but only momentarily distracting. Likewise a subplot concerning George Etheredge's Man of Mode (widely believed to be based on Rochester's career) somehow never quite catches dramatic fire.

Sigh.  Again, it's really too bad, because the production's design and direction - both by the versatile Eric Tucker - proved consistently ingenious: a simple set of panels was arranged and re-arranged by the cast to conjure an endless array of spaces and effects. Angela Huff's costumes were likewise evocative, and Michael Wartofsky's music alluring. Even Les Dickert's lighting was imaginative. And the production boasts an admirably smart and sallow Rochester in actor Joseph W. Rodriguez, who leavens his vengeful contempt with an intriguing kind of glittering, anxious self-awareness. There are likewise compelling turns from the versatile Daniel Duque-Estrada and the eloquent Sarah Koestner in a variety of roles, as well as a touching cameo from Troy Barboza as one of Rochester's accidental victims.  In smaller parts, Aubin Wise, Lauren Eicher and D'Arcy Dersham also caught my eye; I was only dissatisfied with the performance of Olivia D'Ambrosio, who made of Elizabeth Barry not only a bad actress but also a rather boring pedagogue. She never seemed to warm to the "spark" that was the fetish of the age, and which the actual Earl reportedly had in spades. But perhaps Ambrosio was simply tuned too acutely to her playwright's underlying attitude - for surprisingly enough, within this Libertine, there beats the heart of a puritan.

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