The strange goings-on of “Lost” are nothing compared to the bizarre behavior on “The Island of Slaves,” where a pair of rich masters and their servants find themselves. In ART’s wild, imaginative and brutal adaptation of the 18th century French tale of manners and morals between the classes, things get down and dirty.
It is a safe bet Pierre Marivaux didn’t envision that at the heart of his fantasy island — where former slaves are in charge — would be a disco club where fearless drag queens rule, representing the heights and depths of liberation.
Into this morning-after environment — designed with ruinous appeal by David Zinn and disturbingly lit with neon, fluorescent and follow spots by Christopher Akerlind — come four shipwrecked survivors.
The show begins cleverly with a film of egocentric Euphrosine (Karen MacDonald) and her long-suffering maid Cleanthis (Fiona Gallagher) walking down a deserted Brattle Street in Cambridge, entering the Loeb Drama Center, going past the box office and through the lobby (taking a moment to admire pictures from past productions) before emerging in real life onstage, bedraggled and bewildered.
But before you can say, “Who’s the boss?,” it becomes wondrously clear to Cleanthis — and later to servant Arlequin (Remo Airaldi) — that with the shipwreck, their old servitude has also been swept away: With the whips left on the lifeboats and no wealth as leverage, the masters have lost their power.
The realization of the shift in personal dynamics is first demonstrated in a scene where Arlequin starts to follows his master Iphicrate (John Campion) offstage, as if by habit, before suddenly pivoting and remaining, then following, then staying — each time with increasing boldness and joy.
It’s a brilliant scene, wonderfully executed with childish glee by Airaldi. (“You’ve got to see the funny side,” he tells his master, who doesn’t.) It is also one of many extravagantly and dramatically staged explorations of power by helmer Robert Woodruff that cuts to the emotional, as well as the linguistic, core. Gideon Lester provides the sharp adaptation, full of bitter, funny and profound insights. (“Doesn’t it all come down to luck,” one of the servants observes of this reversal of fortunes.)
The island’s sanguine host, Trivelin (a deliciously sly turn by Thomas Derrah as a kind of bored Wizard of Oz), soon appears, making the new world order official as he commands servants and masters to change clothes and roles — as a quintet of drag performers look on, comment and perform their acts (often entering into the unnerved aud).
The survivors are warned that how they adapt to their newfound positions will determine their future. Subsequent scenes deal with the former masters’ stubborn struggle with their loss of status, and much of their tough-love treatment crosses the border to sadism. (MacDonald deserves some kind of theatrical medal for being willing to wear a pig mask, stripped to her skirt, tied to a giant wheel and furiously spun as paint is thrown on her.)
As the masters enter their 12-step program, the servants turn even uglier, venting their rage, taking on airs and turning spiteful. As they exact their revenge, they become declasse versions of their masters, a point easily forecast but still shockingly executed.
But revenge is only so sweet. “I am not like you,” screams one servant whose cruelty is collapsing. “I don’t have the guts to be happy at your expense.”
The play ends with a surreal spirit of redemption that is deeply affecting, coming from such a stylistically strange production. “What do you have to be to achieve that miracle of forgiveness?” a servant asks without irony. “Kind, decent, reasonable. Let’s try to be good people.”
With heartfelt opera lip-synching now substituting for the cold disco beat, it’s a transcendent benediction in a production that is brave, bizarre and in a class by itself.