Moliere’s first play, his 1655 “The Bungler,” was given its belated U.S. premiere in Richard Wilbur’s translation early this season by New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater. Now we have another Moliere rarity, his 1667 “Amphitryon,” once again in a briskly modern Wilbur version.
While “The Bungler” was clearly formative Moliere, his mature “Amphitryon” is quite unlike the handful of high-comedy satires that have come to represent him today. This is primarily because it’s based on the ancient Greek/Roman myth of the king of the gods, Jupiter/Jove, seducing Alcmena, the loyal wife of Theban general Amphitryon. The result, judging by this Wilbur version, is a one-joke mistaken-identity farce that has its amusing and lyrical moments but becomes tedious when it gives too much time to its low comics — a problem in some of Shakespeare’s plays, too.
Director Darko Tresnjak has attempted to give his production operatic stature, and certainly he and his actors do everything possible to keep it moving. But more mature thesps are needed; the youthful cast is too often callow or campy when it should be high style.
Tresnjak and his set designer, David P. Gordon, pay tribute to period scenery by housing their production in a set that represents the front of Amphitryon’s house in Thebes by four tilted pillars, a classical pediment, two curved staircases, a gargoyle fountain and at least three doors. Cut-out cardboard clouds hover overhead to represent the home of the gods, and a pair of curved slides on either side of the set allow for two all-too-cute cherubs, Shirley Temple wigs, feathered wings and all, to make their entrances. Linda Cho’s period costumes sometimes overwhelm their wearers.
The production makes good use of music throughout, starting with an orchestral bolero and later calling on a solo harp. But at times things get out of hand, notably with Amphitryon’s servant Sosia (an unrepentantly over-the-top Brooks Ashmanskas) who enters whistling Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” and dances to “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” He also mutters “oy” a lot.
After a mimed opening of Alcmena (a lovely, loving Rita Pietropinto) bidding her husband farewell as he goes off to war, the first to speak is the messenger of the gods, Mercury (Liam Craig), chatting in the clouds overhead to the goddess Night (operatic soprano Valerie MacCarthy, who has been given some wordless flights of coloratura). Thunder and lightning herald the arrival from on high of Jupiter/Jove (Dan Snook) dressed as Amphitryon’s double. He quickly beds Alcmena.
Unfortunately, Snook’s performance is altogether too campy and callow for the king of the gods, as is true of all too many of the men. The most apt performance is that of Marissa Matrone as Cleanthis, Sosia’s wife and Alcmena’s lady’s-maid. Her down-to-earth portrayal is a great relief from the prevailing mood, though the director goes too far when he has her sit in an audience member’s lap.
The first act is unbalanced by the amount of time given to Sosia and Mercury-as-Sosia, leading to endless slapstick and verbal dueling. With Jupiter-as-Amphitryon hogging the big scenes, Amphitryon himself (Ryan Shively) doesn’t have a great deal to do. Pietropinto as Alcmena is lucky enough to have some of the play’s most lyrical moments, when Moliere has his say about love and marriage.
But too often this production settles for slapstick when it should aspire to elegant satirical wit. Wilbur’s adaptation has its sly moments, not least when he manages to evoke President Clinton in a line that refers to the meaning of the word “nothing.”
Moliere is extremely demanding of any theater company, and a great deal is always lost in any translation from the original French. Certainly the Huntington is to be applauded for being willing to risk the first major production of Wilbur’s translation, and its production is anything but a disgrace. Still, callow campiness and Moliere are not happy bedfellows.