Superbly acted and well-written, “Power,” now playing at The Banshee in Burbank, is a unique opportunity to learn about an interesting time in French history while being entertained.
It’s a compelling look at influential people manipulating other influential people in an effort to gain control of a situation or, as in the case of King Louis XIV, a country. The procurement of power, in political, familial or romantic arenas, is as fascinating today as it was centuries ago.
Playwright Nick Dear is a modern-day writer with credits in theater (“The Art of Success”), British television (“Poirot”) and cinema (“The Turn of the Screw”). He has a knack for honing well-crafted characters and gives them witty, intelligent lines. This helps in understanding the dialogue about French politics necessary to the plot.
The play opens upon the death of Cardinal Mazarin who essentially has been ruling France since Louis XIII’s death and until Louis XIV comes of age. Teenage Louis (played well by Steve Coombs) now must take the reins and, with his domineering mother by his side, does so with a glint in his eye. He’s getting advice from all sides as to which advisors to keep and which to let go.
Louis believes himself ordained by God and prefers all government to be centralized in him. Recognizing that indeed Louis XIV, the Sun King, ruled a powerful empire for a record-breaking 72 years, it’s awe-inspiring to watch this naïve boy set his jaw in determination to become one of the most influential absolute monarchs of all time.
But the play is not all politics and history. Thanks to witty and sometimes whimsical direction by McKerrin Kelly, things move along at a fast clip. Each character has their own unique strength on stage.
Most notable is Matt Foyer as Fouquet. Fouquet is the king’s minister of finance with his eye on becoming first minister. Foyer has a whale of a time playing Fouquet as a bon vivant, a snappy dresser and a connoisseur of fine things.
But at the same time, Fouquet is sloppy with his emotions and his finances. The royal family loves him and has for a long time. But now the bookish accountant, Colbert (played perfectly by Jason Tendell), has laid down a whole lot of suspicions about him. Whose influence will prevail? Naturally, the one with the most “power.”
There are sexual and familial power plays as well. Louis’ mother is a force to reckon with and is played fiercely by Casey Kramer. But even she finally bows to the king. Louis’ brother, played fabulously by David Pavao, is flamboyant, effeminate and totally useless (to use his own words). There are two mistresses involved in various romances who add a spark of fun and intrigue. Both are good, but Lesley Kirsten Smith gets to revel in her juicier role as Henriette.
Laura Brody does a great job creating costumes of the period, and the sets simply but effectively convey the French court as well as the gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles. In fact, there are more costume and set changes than you would expect from such a small theater. You get the best of both worlds — intimacy with a touch of opulence. It’s kind of like the play itself.
The Sun King’s reign was known for its opulence and wealth.
But this unique view from within the power players’ chambers gives an achingly intimate portrait of the vulnerable human beings they really were.