Jean Anouilh, the pathfinder of postwar French theater, preferred to divide his body of work between pieces noires — gloomy historical dramas like “Becket” and “Antigone” — and pieces roses — frothy fantasias like “Ring Round the Moon.” “Leocadia,” which has been newly adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher for the Guthrie Theater under the title “To Fool the Eye,” fits snugly into the latter category. As in “Ring Round the Moon,” Anouilh is dancing here with his favorite theme, the interplay between illusion and memory. Hatcher interprets “Leocadia” as a featherweight idyll, and the Guthrie’s production is enjoyable in the way that many well-crafted, unessential things are enjoyable. But with only hints of Anouilh’s characteristic and deeply felt sense of loss, the whole is so immaterial that is seems almost ready to float off into the ether. As Anouilh knew better than anyone, even a rose needs a thorn or two to maintain its allure.
The challenges of adapting Anouilh, whose writing is steeped both in French language and history, are not inconsequential. If one were unfamiliar with Isadora Duncan’s unfortunate demise in 1929, for instance, the fact that the opera diva Leocadia is strangled by her scarf seems a mere absurdity. On balance, though, Hatcher proves a sensitive conduit. He bridges the language chasm by relying on a literal English translation by Stephanie L. Debner.
And, freed of the burden of translation, Hatcher, who is himself a prolific and admired playwright, infuses the play with a tart and distinctly American wit. His “Leocadia” is French in spirit, but with a Midwestern twang.
The title “To Fool the Eye,” which is a literal translation of the French term trompe l’oeil, effectively communicates the drift of the Guthrie’s production. Set designer John Lee Beatty and director John Miller-Stephany conspire to create an elaborately artificial environment for the play. The scrim, painted like a late-period Monet landscape, is a colored mist hanging over a rococo grotto, featuring plastic flowers and a cherubic garden statue whose chronic urination provides some early and easy laughs. In timbre, at least, the Guthrie’s production feels like a reworking of Lewis Carroll, with Melinda Page Hamilton playing a waif version of Alice and Barbara Bryne, dressed like a peacock, playing the Cheshire Cat.
After tumbling down the proverbial rabbit hole, Hamilton’s Amanda lands in a provincial French estate, which, we learn, has been transformed by Bryne’s Duchess to suit the fancy of Prince Albert (Scott Ferrara), a handsome dolt who is pining over the death of his love, Leocadia. The premise allows for a playful burlesque of theatrical pretensions, with the estate’s various eccentric denizens as knowing participants in a grand illusion. The joke is that all of the characters are aware that they are, in fact, caricatures — a light parody of Pirandello’s existentialism. “I know I’m of the class from which farce recruits its stock characters,” admits one of the stock characters of the farce.
Miller-Stephany and Hatcher work to keep the Guthrie production light and nimble. And, indeed, many of the best comic notes are incidental. In one scene, a superannuated ice-cream vendor played by Dudley Riggs explains that “I used to have a workshop.” The line gets a knowing snigger from the audience, not because it’s funny, but because Riggs is the founder of a venerable Minneapolis comedy institution called the Brave New Workshop. In another, Bryne’s Duchess complains that “the unions” have halted France’s train service. Again the line would be a toss-off if not for the fact that, on opening night, the union representing the Guthrie’s costumers was picketing outside the theater. (Anouilh would probably have preferred that the joke come at the expense of the well-off theater patrons than the workers outside).
Yet for its all its casual intelligence and rambling good nature, the Guthrie’s “To Fool the Eye” feels remarkable insubstantial. Even for a play about illusion, in other words, there seems to be little beneath the facade. And, unlike Leocadia herself, the airy delights of this adaptation fade from memory even as they’re played out.