Marivaux, master dissector of passion’s complex emotional and verbal skeins, might not immediately recognize his 1720 “The False Servant” in the world premiere of Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s retitled radical deconstruction “The Deception,” but he’d surely be over the moon at the result. Tony-winning Minneapolis-based ensemble’s unique amalgam of bravura acting, circus technique and Commedia, coupled here with the bitter worldview of a Beckett, makes for a heady, stimulating evening. At the same time, it continues the troupe’s investigation into the dilemma of respecting the integrity of classical texts while making them sing for a modern audience.
The theme — one’s desire to fully know the heart of one’s intended — is as elegantly Gallic as its working out is Shakespearean: An heiress known only by her nom d’amour, Chevalier (Merritt Janson), dresses as a bachelor — more willfully than Viola, less playfully than Rosalind — to befriend her prearranged fiance.
A country visit reveals the worldly Lelio (Casey Greig) has been playing both ends against the middle (literally so, in this highly sexualized production) by seducing a Countess (Emily Gunyou Halaas) to whom he owes a fortune.
Hoping to manipulate his new pal and a phalanx of servants to garner maximum cash through minimum romantic entanglement, Lelio can’t anticipate that the Chevalier will discover not just the fun of living life as a man in a highly restricted society but the use and misuse of power that inevitably accompany it.
Marivaux is fiendishly difficult to stage this side of the Atlantic. His convoluted romantic plots and counterplots can seem precious and static, especially since they’re less acted out than talked about in the elaborately refined coils of half-truths and epigrams known as “marivaudage” — a term as evocative in France as “Pinteresque” is here; both can be equally off-putting.
Jeune Lune’s adaptation takes bold steps toward accessibility. The original verbiage is reduced to its barest essence, supplemented by a soupcon of profanity meeting David Mamet’s strictest quota, and a willingness to bend whenever modern idiom will cut to a character’s heart, as with Lelio’s unambiguously anguished reaction to unraveling schemes: “I’m freakin’ out!”
The hybrid diction removes the usual safety of a period play, daring us not to see our own interpersonal machinations in those of a bygone era.
Even more excitingly, helmer Dominique Serrand guides the ensemble to discover its own means of unraveling the heart’s secrets — its own kinetic marivaudage — by way of the human body. Aristocrats and servants alike leap, recline and sprawl to express their true selves, propelling themselves into and out of rooms with lightning transitions of mood and bouncing off walls in amorous confusion or greedy frustration.
The removal of a shirt can convey the temporary abrogation of power that’s restored by donning another, a moment at which the most ardent semiotician would swoon.
Inspired by the lazzi of the Commedia dell’Arte tradition Marivaux treasured, the physicalizations here act as emotional lazzi, so communicative of characters’ internal states that one could be truly ignorant of both Marivaux and the spoken language and still be able to follow the play’s emotional line.
One could also still appreciate the comedically rich servant performances of sour Trivelin (J.C. Cutler) and sweet Arlequino (Nathan Keepers), an 18th century Laurel and Hardy whose hilarious antics — notably Keepers’ indescribable wrestling match with his own hair — always illuminate their pressing needs for sex, status and (above all) gold.
Any play, but especially a talky classical one, requires deeply felt objectives and a ferocious need to accomplish them, and Jeune Lune never lacks for either feeling or ferocity. At first a seeming booby, Greig exudes a steamy sexuality rendering wholly plausible the women’s infatuation. Janson balances the Chevalier’s potent reason with no less physical chemistry, at the Countess’ first sight of which Halaas suddenly reacts with a jerky, head-bobbing stumble in which each of us can see the reflection of our own first erotic “thunderbolt.”
Like the acting, physical production is eclectic but harmonious. Designer David Coggins’ walls of individually painted Plexiglas panels are an apt contemporary analogy to the overwhelming (and truth-obscuring) interiors of a Baroque palace.
These panels permit Marcus Dilliard to achieve startlingly expressive effects sending white light through them onto Sonya Berlovitz’s off-white, patchwork but period-influenced clothes. It’s rare for a costume to ratchet up dramatic tension, but when the Countess parades across the prone Lelio in her stagewide wedding gown, its peach-colored smears reminiscent of dried blood prefigure the harsh denouement.
Play ends so disturbingly that it becomes a genius stroke for company, post-bows, to form a magic circle downstage for several minutes of gorgeous choral singing. The indistinct lyrics smack of Latin or Italian, and the arrangement seems indebted to African harmonies, but whatever it is, it amounts to a healing wind that restores one’s faith in humanity — if not quite to the extent that Marivaux’s dark comedy has challenged it.