It’s taken all of the inaugural season, but the Los Angeles Theatre Center has come up with an honest-to-goodness, nonmodern classic that is at the same time (a) a bit of a literary curio, (b) a virtually forgotten, certainly neglected, script and (c) a striking herald of feminist self-assertion, written long before such an idea had taken hold of the popular imagination.
The play is Nicholas Rowe’s 18th-Century “The Fair Penitent,” that adapter/director Charles Marowitz, for his own unexplained reasons, has transposed to the latter part of the 19th Century. (Given the melodramatic nature of the material, the 18th might have been more appropriate simply by virtue of being more remote, but it’s a small matter in the end.)
Rowe, who was a poet laureate and the first chronicler of Shakespeare’s texts, was also a fair emulator of the latter’s style.
Aside from inventing the original Lothario character (thereby enriching the language with a new byword), “Fair Penitent” tells an absorbing if unoriginal story. A woman is seduced and betrayed, a lover is killed by the good friend of a wronged husband, friendships are threatened, fathers humiliated and daughters daunted. In the second half, the story suffers a literal descent into the grave.
This crypt (the text says “room,” but the setting belies it) where rests the dead Lothario (Franklyn Seales) and where his still-living paramour Calista (Maria Mayenzet) has repaired herself in shame, becomes a revolving door. Fathers, husbands and good buddies come in and out, as they force the play to its inevitable conclusion.
While the Marowitz adaptation has streamlined the basic script (redistributing its five acts into two) and provided it with a lively staging, stunning Gorey-like stone settings by Karl Eigsti, furtive lighting by Martin Aronstein and elegantly muted costuming by Noel Taylor, the structural clumsiness and sentimental excesses of Act II are barely mitigated.
Yet excessive though its resolutions may be, “Fair Penitent” is an engrossing and utterly remarkable piece enhanced by Marowitz’s flair for theatricality that boldly adds a striking furbelow to the opening and personal signature at the end. Rather than fight the melodrama, he knows how to go with it, which is the only way to go.
Seales, who is a proven champion of virtually anything he undertakes, gives the most lucid reading of all, though, with his slender frame, he is not particularly ideal casting for Lothario--especially since Mayenzet is a physically imposing (and ultimately very capable and moving) Calista.
Both Christopher McDonald as Calista’s upstanding suitor/husband Altamont, and Oliver Csizmas as his close friend and confidant Horatio (the name is a token of Rowe’s Shakespearean allegiance) increasingly distinguish themselves in roles that grow more shaded and sympathetic as the play wears on. Their fencing bouts, as well as the ones with Seales, are among the best seen on any stage. Erik Fredricksen did the spectacular fight choreography.
Frank Collison as Lothario’s slippery friend Rossano and Jack Gwillim as Calista’s fond father each bring polish and dimension to their characters. Tania Myren (as Horatio’s wife and Altamont’s sister) is a little too down to earth in her delivery of some of the play’s most inspired speeches, and Lynn Ann Leveridge does her best with the play’s least definable role as Calista’s handmaiden/messenger.
Beyond all that, and most significantly, Rowe has created (and Marowitz recognized) a heroine who strongly protests the plight of women, “through eve’ry stage of life the slave of man,” in a manner as eloquent, proud and dignified as it is surprising for its time.
Better yet, it is eminently refreshing to see and hear actors who not only appear to be listening to what they say, but actually give every indication of understanding the period language they speak.
That is great cause for celebration in a community where actors, even good ones, have been content (allowed?) to drone the speech mindlessly on the tongue, infatuated, it would seem, with their capacity just to produce resounding vowels and rolling consonants.
A fairly spoken penitent. When comes such another?
‘THE FAIR PENITENT’ A play by Nicholas Rowe, adapted and directed by Charles Marowitz at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St. Producer Diane White. Set designer Karl Eigsti. Costume designer Noel Taylor. Lighting design Martin Aronstein. Sound Design Jon Gottlieb. Fight director Erik Fredricksen. Stage manager Charles McEwan. Cast Maria Mayenzet, Franklyn Seales, Oliver Csizmas, Christopher McDonald, Jack Gwillim, Frank Collison, Lynn Ann Leveridge, Tania Myren, John Lasell, Carmine Iannaccone, Joan Pirkle, David Prather, Allegra Swift. Performances Mondays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays 2 and 8 p.m., until May 10 (213) 627-5599.