The current stateside vogue for 18th-century French playwright Marivaux owes much to opera director Stephen Wadsworth’s 1992 “The Triumph of Love” at Princeton’s McCarter Theater. Remounted with a new cast at Berkeley Rep, Wadsworth’s staging suggests the hitherto neglected author’s rediscovery may be a lasting one. Rigorously stylized yet deeply felt, this is a triumph indeed.
His gorgeously clear adaptation (translated with Nadia Benabid) reveals an authorial voice that will require delicate handling in all future revivals. While rich in the farcical complications of Moliere and other commedia masters, Marivaux’s work lacks their up-to-the-moment cynicism; he celebrates “la surprise de l’amour” in florid, breathlessly romantic terms that could easily stiffen on the modern stage. Wadsworth proves a definitive interpreter.
The setup is revealed in one long opening address from Leonide (Lise Bruneau) , a princess donning male drag (alongside maid Corine, played by Sheryl Taub) to infiltrate philosopher Hermocrate’s (J. Michael Flynn) estate. His ward is youthful Agis (Jordan Lee Williams), a nobleman in hiding whose crown was usurped by Leonide’s ancestors. She seeks to return that birthright and unite the warring houses via royal wedlock. But Hermocrate and sister Leontine (Sharon Lockwood) have raised Agis to loathe his enemies and resist frivolous emotions like love.
Even this presumablytruncated text (clocking in at three hours’ stage time) offers scant action, testing audience and thesp stamina via endless discourses on Love vs. Reason. But the language here is a revelation — at once fevered and clear-eyed, ringing umpteen impassioned variations from this single theme. It’s a great credit to Wadsworth and his collaborators that such perfumed intensity lifts off the page at all, let alone with fresh impact. The director’s musicality is manifest everywhere. Each character acts within an idiosyncratic vocal and gestural vocabulary; they entwine to delicious duet and choral effects.
Bruneau performs a sustained high-wire act, her voice all disembodied honey. M.C. O’Connor’s valet Harlequin (masked until a poignant coda) darts around like a piccolo solo given human form; Taub’s Corine and Charles Dean’s gardener Dimas strike hardier comic notes, as does Lockwood’s tremulously repressed Leontine. The superb Flynn offers a ramrod-stiff Hermocrate whose tricked unloosening provides both laughs and eventual, devastating pathos. Only Williams’ Agis falls a bit short amid this company’s stylized precision.
Wadsworth and his McCarter design team have created a gorgeous series of stage pictures whose progress is daringly slow. Eccentric pacing, with moments of utter stillness, risks tedium; yet the formal, choreographed execution serves to heighten the emotions on display.
While Marivaux’s unabashed romanticism won’t be an easy bandwagon for others to leap on, it has certainly found a champion in Wadsworth.