James Magruder, one of the adapters of “The Love of Three Oranges” at the La Jolla Playhouse, refers to the show as “an American adaptation of a Romanian adaptation of an Italian scenario of a Persian fairytale.” This convoluted definition may account for this production’s lurching shapelessness, as well as the humor that succeeds only in fits and starts. It’s like an orange with an enticingly colorful surface until the skin is peeled to expose pure, puerile pulp.
Director Nona Ciobanu is a woman with an avant-garde, individual vision, and her idea of using a curtain as a key protagonist that moves the story forward is an intriguing one. Owing to its flexibility and elasticity, the huge yellow curtain easily embraces and expels characters with admirable boldness. When they emerge from this curtain, which represents a maternal figure, they’re all dressed in vividly identical yellow material. Ciobanu and Iulian Baltatescu (who did the evocative lighting) make every scene a treat for the eye.
However, the situations (harmoniously utilized in Prokofiev’s 1921 opera of the same name) are rarely a match for the visuals. Everything is pushed too hard, and the tale runs out of steam after a bright beginning.
Tartaglia (Jim Parsons) plays a petulant, pill-popping prince whose father, King Silvio of Lugubria (Time Winters), fears his hypochondriacal sourpuss of a son will die if he doesn’t learn to laugh. Laughter is accidentally provoked by Morgana (Donald Corren), an evil, stringy-haired old witch.
The offended Morgana places a curse on him, condemning him to fall in love with three oranges. Tartaglia is forced to find these oranges, accompanied by pal Truffaldino (John Altieri).
A secondary plot involves Clarice (Carmen Gill) and Leandro (Owiso Odera), who scheme to steal the king’s throne.
Parsons is suitably serious and dour, but his resentful-little-boy quality grows wearisome after a while, and there isn’t enough of a contrast between his balkiness and Altieri’s Truffaldino. These roles require more commanding, outsize personalities, and both characters remain the same from start to finish.
Winters manages to project royal stature, a considerable accomplishment in a part that asks him to drag his body on the ground throughout, using his arms as feet.
As Ninetta, the woman Tartaglia wants to marry, Pascale Armand has a ditzy charm, and she barrels her way through lines that press the boundaries between titillating farce and total silliness.
Tina Benko comes on like gangbusters as Smeraldina, the rival who sticks a needle in Ninetta’s head and turns her into a green bird. Standing on a vast yellow wasteland, she actually brings conviction to the comment, “I’m a licensed beautician,” when offering to fix Ninetta’s hair. Later, explaining herself to the king and attempting to destroy Tartaglia and Ninetta’s relationship, she does a rapid-fire riff of self-justification. We want to shake the obtuse king for exiling her, rather than making her part of his harem.
“Oranges” is often so sophomoric that it feels like a children’s show, despite doses of heavy sexual innuendo. This is not commedia dell’arte for the faint of heart; the sexuality includes a torso with enormous breasts and nipples formed by heads pressing from behind the curtain, and oranges popping from a section of the curtain shaped like a vagina.
Ciobanu’s pacing is fast, but hilarious spots are few, and when lives are threatened, little suspense or jeopardy is generated. We don’t care, finally, if the pouting prince lightens up, or whether he decides to love an orange or a girl.