Playing fast and loose with Marivaux, South Coast Repertory’s giddy, gaudy “The Triumph of Love” is a victory of comic invention for adapter Richard Greenberg and director Mark Rucker, though the 18th-century French playwright on whose play they’ve spun a dizzy new variation might have a few qualms.
The production signals its irreverence in the opening moments, as Princess Leonide (Rene Augesen) blazes through a barrage of exposition without so much as pausing for a breath, leaving the audience struggling to follow her tale of ancient feuds among her forebears and those of the young object of her admiration, Agis (Joshua Farrell), whose kingdom her family once usurped. But the confusion is intentional — her companion Hermidas advises the befuddled to consult the dramaturg’s notes in the program at intermission — and the first tipoff that Rucker’s revisionist staging won’t play by any of the classic theater’s rules.
Leonide has come to woo Agis, who has been raised under the stern, philosophy-besotted eyes of Hermocrate (Patrick O’Connell) and Leontine (Jeanne Paulsen). Because she’s from a family at war with Agis, Leonide disguises herself as a young man (don’t ask why). Only by charming both of Agis’ intellectual elders can Leonide gain access to Agis, and the play’s plot follows the revolutions her wooing of all three characters brings about in their hearts, formerly closed to the lures of love.
The show’s comic momentum takes off with the entrance of Harlequin (in leopard-print Napoleonic chapeau, with nary a diamond print in sight) and his bumbling associate, the gardener Dimas (Patrick Kerr), who are quickly enlisted to aid Leonide’s cause. Though we hardly need the knock on the head of Harlequin’s entry carrying a Hefty bag — loudly labeled as such — to clue us in to the play’s heedlessness of period detail, Dimas’ arrival provides a genuine comic coup de theatre — too priceless to spoil by description — provided by Karen Teneyck’s brightly colored, ingenious set.
The attention to each character’s entry — the hapless Agis is greeted with a jet of water from a garden hose — is indicative of Rucker’s careful husbanding of all the production’s details — right down to a subtly unraveling wig — in pursuit of a daffy aesthetic that pokes fun at the play’s conventions even as it serves them up with hearty panache.
Playing Dimas with the air of a stooge who knows more than he lets on, with a deadpan, nasal whine that wrings an astonishing number of laughs from Greenberg’s astonishing number of clever malapropisms and puns, the marvelous Kerr puts Harlequin in the shade, although Beckett has his own wry charm. Together they make a major corporation out of their business, which is in truth only a sideline to the play’s plot.
Indeed if Rucker’s production has a fault, it is that the emphasis on broad comedy leaves little time for the play’s more nuanced moments to steal into our hearts. “To have to put up with this low comedy is the last straw,” sniffs O’Connell’s Hermocrate, and one can sympathize. With the play making fun of itself at every turn, it would take some doing to keep audiences in tune to the seriousness with which Marivaux’s characters treat the desires of their hearts.
Augesen is an able actress, and Paulsen and O’Connell give astute turns, but it’s only Farrell’s Agis who makes us feel that his love is as genuine and reason-shattering as all the characters claim. Dazed and wilting when he believes Leonide has pledged her lover to another, his flushed face a mask of pain, he’s as funny as he is moving.
In Rucker’s artful final tableau, the jilted Leontine and Hermocrate — having changed their resolutely brown ensembles to join their fellows in Katherine Beatrice Roth’s witty, riotously colored duds — turn toward each other with matching looks of wonder. They’ve learned that “love can lay waste to reason,” in Greenberg’s elegant phrase, and if that’s an old truth, it’s rarely been put across with the comic exuberance it gets here.