Marivaux is filtered through the contemporary sensibilities of translator Gideon Lester and adapter-director Anne Bogart in this new production of “La Dispute.” Instead of the artifices, delicacies and subtleties of the French playwright’s investigations of the eternal game of love, we are offered a modern, American, and very physical staging that betrays the influences of, among others, Alain Resnais’ 1961 arthouse hit film “Last Year at Marienbad.” It also brings to mind modern dance’s Pina Bausch, while reflecting the Suzuki Method of stylized movement taught by the Saratoga Intl. Theater Institue, Bogart’s company. Very chic visually, and with an almost too powerful performance by SITI’s Ellen Lauren to propel it, it ultimately seems pointless and also dated in a retro avant-garde way.
The dispute at the heart of the play is whether it was a man or a woman who was the first person in the world to be unfaithful. Marivaux sets up a fantasy of four young people raised in isolation who fall in love with the first attractive person of the opposite sex they meet, only to be immediately unfaithful when they meet another attractive person. The dispute is never really settled, although at the end another young couple do remain constant.
The production begins with a lengthy prologue created by Bogart in which each member of the cast comes on stage, turns and faces the audience and appears to primp in front of a mirror, thus establishing a central element of the play — narcissism. All 20 cast members are clad in contemporary high fashions ranging from classic to funky. Black is the prevailing color, with the faithful couple in white.
The one-at-a-time entrances of the cast take about 10 minutes — in total silence. It would seem that here are people coming to an evening party, and eventually they indulge in a series of choreographed seduction scenes and full-scale dance numbers, one Spanish.
The silence is eventually broken by the host, the Prince (Frank Raiter), and his beloved Hermione (Lynn Cohen), the older couple that have been having the dispute. The Prince has organized the playing out of what he hopes will settle it.
Enter Egle (Lauren), a completely protected young woman (Lauren is a bit old for the part, though nonetheless invaluable) who immediately falls in love with her own image in a stream, a mirror and a photograph. When Azor (Stephen Webber) arrives on the scene they promptly declare eternal love, and their wooing scene, in which she at first refers to him as another woman, is the highlight of the production, both amusing and charming.
But then equally isolated and narcissistic Adine (Kelly Maurer) enters and a battle ensues between the two women as to who is the most beautiful. The battle gets more and more physical, with Maurer standing on her head at one point and an ever larger balloon-like ball being used as a weapon between the two. When Adine’s Mesrin (Will Bond) appears, Egle immediately wants him, and to keep Azor too, whereas Mesrin is only too eager to dump Adine and take up with Egle.
Along the way Azor and Mesrin become “buddies” (the translation and adaptation are by no means witless, sometimes evoking the heightened, stylized language of Marivaux and then illuminating it or undercutting it by purposely banal modernisms).
Throughout there’s a lot of rushing about and even wall clambering (Neil Patel’s elegantly uncluttered set is a rank of ever higher and longer curved walls that suggest a maze, with a viewing balcony at the rear for voyeurs), and there’s too much of the noisy clomping of high heels on the wooden floor.
Though Lauren dominates, Maurer is a briskly pert Adine and indeed the two women are more in command than their somewhat wimpy lovers as portrayed by Webber and Bond. Raiter is a regal, firmly spoken Prince; Cohen’s voice is less flexible. Most of the rest of the cast works well within the SITI style, though when called upon to actually dance, not all are convincing.
James Schuette’s haute costumes, from leather to feathers, are Europeanized and certainly bring “Marienbad” to mind (as it happens, Giorgio Armani has supported this production). Christopher Akerlind’s lighting and Darron L West’s soundscape, which makes use of a vast range of music from romantic strings to Spanish guitar to pop love songs, add to the production’s undeniable stylishness.