Pesky things, scripts. They get in the way of so many fun ideas. For their revival of Marivaux’s “The Dispute,” the creatives at National Asian American Theater Company obviously have concepts to spare, several of which are striking. However, few of them are related to the play itself.
An Enlightenment-era comedy of human nature, “The Dispute” stages a droll experiment to discover which sex is more inherently unfaithful. A prince raises four teens — two boys, two girls — in captivity, then releases them into a forest. Who will love whom? Who will cheat first? The nobles watch their tiny garden of Eden, expecting a revelation on love.
But something in the woods is amiss. Set designer Sue Rees has created an all-white world, complete with alabaster trees and spray-painted apples littering the floor. The image is beautiful, especially since the youngsters also are dressed in white. Throughout its 60 minutes, the stage picture has an elegant harmony.
It’s a harmony, however, that should not exist. The kids are pure, yes, but their purity is challenged by the rotten old world. These characters are the opposite of a forest that symbolizes sexual awakening, so it defies logic for the realm of temptation to be the same color as innocence.
Director Jean Randich hangs her vision on the idea that the boys turn bad when they see young women, and the girls go astray when they see themselves. For the ladies, this means a gimmick of looking in a mirror and freezing with delight. Meanwhile, the lights go crimson and techno music throbs in the background.
The joke works at first, when the girls are seduced by their own looks. But the mirror’s meaning changes. When she’s separated from her lover for the first time, for instance, tender Egle (Jennifer Chang) says, “He’s not here anymore … there’s nothing anymore but the mirror.” Never mind that she will be swooning for a new man in just a few lines. In this moment, the glass shows Egle’s sadness. But the lights still flash, and the music still pounds, as though every reflection were the same.
Randich’s work is sharper with the men. They leap and tumble across the stage, often doing gymnastics on the set’s random metal bars (painted white, of course). Their spastic energy fits two fools who are slaves to pretty faces.
But when they speak, thesps Alexis Camins and Lanny Joons are at odds with their bodies. Both men deliver lines in slow, awestruck tones, as though they were pausing to consider their impulses. This turgid vocal rhythm jars as they bound through the air, making their perfs a struggle between words and action.
Contradictory acting only makes the show feel more confused. As Marivaux’s writing reaches a tidy conclusion, the bigger dispute between play and production remains unresolved.