THEATER REVIEW : Enough Love to Go Around : The Pursuit in ‘Triumph’ Offers More Than Sentiment
The titles of Pierre Marivaux’s plays--”Harlequin Polished by Love,” “The Surprise of Love” and “The Game of Love and Chance”--reveal this early-18th-Century playwright’s obsession and calling. If he was concerned with social justice and the importance of character over class (anticipating Rousseau by 20 years), those themes also fed his favorite subject, for what is love without generosity and a clear-eyed perception of a person’s true qualities?
“The Triumph of Love,” now at the La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum, is considered one of Marivaux’s most complex heroic comedies, and director Lisa Peterson emphasizes the heroic by giving us, in Angie Phillips, a Phocion who is dashingly confident and thoroughly winning even in her most callous moments.
The plot, which Marivaux dispenses quickly and early, is this: The princess Leonide has fallen in love from afar with Agis, so she invades the sanctum of his adopted father, philosopher Hermocrate (Tony Amendola), and his sister of a certain age, Leontine (Beth Dixon). Dressed as a man, Phocion, she seduces Hermocrate as a young woman who is disguised as Phocion only to be near him and study his wisdom. As Phocion, she seduces the philosopher’s sister, as well. Of course she must also seduce Agis and still find time to bribe two servants, Harlequin (the rubber-faced Paul Giamatti) and a dimwitted gardener named Dimas (Silas Weir Mitchell) with a little help from her maid Corine (Laurie Williams), disguised as a page called Hermidas.
If that sounds convoluted, it doesn’t feel that way in this breathless and delightful staging, which, like the loving production of “Harvey” currently at La Jolla’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, mines the play for all of its humor and then imaginatively adds more of its own.
Marivaux examines love without mawkishness. Setting his plays in a world where a servant’s loyalty to his master can always be purchased with a bag of gold, Marivaux never shies from depicting the shocking selfishness of the lover hungry to capture his prey.
Angie Phillips has a triumph in the role. Seemingly effortlessly, Phillips captures the musicality of Marivaux’s language and even carries out Phocion’s vow to “act without scruples” with royal confidence and an intelligence that far outstrips the object of her affection (watching Agis cerebrate, she remarks, “How long you’ve been at the solution!”). Her Phocion is charming because he/she is too utterly engaged in the great challenge of language, lying and seduction to have time to consider his/her own charms.
While there’s humor in seeing Phocion’s charm undo both virtue and philosophy, Dixon holds onto the spinster Leontine’s humanity, and Amendola gets at the philosopher’s distress in acknowledging the irrefutable force of attraction. The entire cast brings something original to roles that were, after all, written largely for the stock characters of the Theatre Italien, a Paris-based rival to the Comedie Francaise. As the story’s clowns, Paul Giamatti and Silas Weir Mitchell keep the jokes flowing, even invoking the Three Stooges and, fleetingly, Jackie Gleason, in their quest for low comedy.
Marina Draghici’s set suggests the 18th-Century salon with a crystal chandelier, off-center and unexpected, like much of the production’s humor. A long shelf of impressive-looking books is replaced in the second act by a sumptuous table, overflowing with candles, cupids, flowers and fruits, signaling that all members of the studious household have been transformed by the pleasure of love. Likewise, in the garden, large pots of dead-looking dirt are changed, under Tim Becker’s lighting, to a rich brown-blue in the second act, revealing the mineral life that had been lurking there before.
Jack Taggart’s costumes are a witty amalgam of 18th-Century cliches, culminating in an orange fairy-tale princess dress for Leonide’s debut as a woman.
Despite his clearheadedness, Marivaux believed that love betters everything. After Hermocrate and Leontine have fallen, they dress and powder themselves like the unhinged, but are at least lunatics who feel joy.
Is the joy worth it, when one is deceived and abandoned by a lover, albeit a royal one? This production addresses that question by ending on a melancholy note. But the image at the play’s start is truer to its heart. A man in friar-like robes runs his finger lovingly over some volumes of books, searching. He spots an open book on the floor, bathed in light, and kneels down to its pages, finding in them the object of his search, a rapturous emotion.
Marivaux might be obsessed with love, but he is no mere sentimentalist. He explores his subject through ideas, not platitudes. And the triumph of this “Triumph of Love” is that we still feel the presence of the bookshelf even after it has been banished from the stage. Theatergoers can feast on low comedy at La Jolla and still be connected to high ideas and high culture.
* “The Triumph of Love,” La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Forum, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2 p.m., Sunday , 7 p.m., Ends Aug . 13. $19-$32. (619) 550-1010 or TDD/VOICE (619) 550-1030. Running time: 2 hours.
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