In advance interviews about “The Triumph of Love,” adapter/director Lillian Groag calls Marivaux’s 1732 original “a souffle with a razor blade inside… It can look very fluffy, and it’s not.” Yet what’s onstage at California Shakespeare Festival Theater does little to explore the darker aspects of a romantic comedy that plays the cruelest tricks on its patsies since poor Malvolio. This pretty-looking, generally entertaining version overindulges its thesps’ variably inspired physical comedy. A tightened pace and textual trims are in order before co-producer San Jose Rep launches its season with the show in late September.
Any Bay Area “Triumph” has to contend with the long shadow of prior adaptor/helmer Stephen Wadsworth’s extraordinary take, which kickstarted a Stateside Marivaux revival and played Berkeley Rep in 1994. Shaping performances of near-Kabuki minimalist stylization that made climactic emotional displays all the more devastating, Wadsworth created something not just amusing and gorgeous but unexpectedly moving.
Deeper emotions are not plumbed in Groag’s evening, though her script (from Frederick Kluck’s fresh translation) warrants future directorial interpretation. Hardly hewing to the letter of its source — indeed Marivaux left some roles to be improvised in classic commedia style — she injects modernized verbal wit without going for easy contemporary-reference laughs, an occasional wink-wink phrase like “fatal attraction” aside.
Still, the story’s path seems so inevitable after its first scenes that one wishes Groag had wielded sharper editorial scissors over repetitious scenes — and physical business that sometimes simply pads and prolongs them.
No stranger to trouser roles, Stacy Ross offers an expertly determined/flustered focal point as Princess Leonide, who decides to return her Sparta throne to Agis (Jud Williford), the prince her elders usurped it from. She also hopes to become his queen, having fallen instantly in love when she spied him walking in the forest.
Trouble is, Agis lives in hiding — from her presumed assassins — with ascetic philosopher Hermocrates (Dan Hiatt). Latter raised the young man to hate the woman who had inherited his stolen birthright. Ergo Leonide and lady-in-waiting Corine (Catherine Castellanos) adopt male dress to access Hermocrates’ remote rural retreat, posing as young noble Phocion and humble servant Hermidas.
This ruse’s uncovering forces Leonide to pretend to pitch woo toward Hermocrates — who’s figured out “Phocion” is a girl — and spinster sis Leontine (Domenique Lozano), who hasn’t. Both fall fast. Ditto wide-eyed Agis — who in Williford’s delightful perf (reprising his gaga suitor in ACT’s “Imaginary Invalid” last month) — seems helplessly besotted even while Leonide poses as best-friend-forever dude.
Kate Edmunds’ unit set emphasizes a handsome color palette of teal-to-turquoise hues. Its palatial rear gate is backed by giant-copperwire tangle suggesting love’s convoluted path. Other design contribs are sharp.
But Groag should rein in commedia clowns Arlecchino (Danny Scheie) and Dimas (Ron Campbell). The former gets a lot of pixie faux-ballet bits that are cute but make a long evening longer. Latter channels Chill Wills as a grizzled Gold Rush prospector (and is costumed as such). These actors are resourceful, but the comic ideas they riff on fast wear out their welcome. Even Campbell’s initially hilarious imitation of an overheard conversation runs a mite long.
At the end, after the Princess has manipulated Hermocrates and Leontine and thawed their hearts, she curtly abandons them. Helmer Groag dismisses their suffering with a textual/directorial shrug, hardly the non-fluffy interpretation promised.
Although this “Triumph of Love” is diverting, it scarcely addresses the accusations of dated superficiality that kept Marivaux from being revived for many years.