The Triumph of Love
Pierre De Marivaux, Translated by Stephen Wadsworth
Gender confusions left and right that lead to infatuations built on false pretenses. A cunning princess plotting to capture the love of a naïve prince who has been taught his whole life to hate and eventually usurp her. Loves built on mounting lies leading to three planned marriages on the same day to the same person.
What sounds like it could be a newly discovered Shakespeare comedy is in fact a 1732 play by Pierre De Marivaux that has – like the Bard’s works – also stood the test of time with its magnificent language, fascinating characters both high and low in society, and a storyline that twists and turns but is from the start clearly destined to end happily – at least for the princess and prince. Part fairy tale, part farce, part rom-com, and part commedia dell’arte, Marivaux’s The Triumph of Love opens Shotgun Players’ 31st love-themed season with a must-see production that sparkles, sizzles, and satisfies from beginning to its own triumphant end.
Princess Leonide arrives with her faithful servant, Corine, in the gardens of the famed philosopher of all that is rationale, Hermocrate, who lives there with his equally stern thinking\living sister, Leontine. Residing for the past ten years with them is the young Agis, whom they have schooled to worship rational thinking above all else and to hate the very Princess who has arrived, she being the niece of a general who usurped his father’s throne and now sits on it herself. Leonide has come to ensure the rightful sovereign rules her country but that he does so as her husband. But in order not to be immediately rejected by this entire household as a grave enemy, she and Corine arrive dressed as young men, with the stated purpose that she under the name of Phocíon wants to learn from the great teacher, Hermocrate.
But this is not an ordinary princess of Grimms fairy tales or even of Shakespeare’s gender-confused comedies. Leonide is more like a combination of a spy on a dangerous mission, a soldier come to conquer, and a compulsive liar who happens to be both bright and charming. As she tells Corine of Agis, “I have set a snare for him that all his rational thinking could not possibly protect him.”
To release the mutual bonds of loyalty that Agis shares with the philosopher and his sister, Leonide undertakes multiple false identities in order to cultivate the love of all three to one of the female or male personas she has created for herself. She does so with the precision of a full-on, well-planned attack of wooing words and maneuvers specifically designed to conquer each of them. For us as audience, all this subversive manipulation becomes a heyday for our light-hearted entertainment, thanks to Marivaux’s rich and often riotous script (as translated by Stephen Wadsworth) and to the wonderfully paced, always-on-the-move, and on-the-verge-of-silly-while-still-serious direction of Patrick Dooley.
Veronica Renner totally reigns as the princess in disguise, Leonide. There is an intensity of purpose that exudes in her every pointing finger used to underscore her well-calculated words, in her piercing eyes that lovingly (if sometimes falsely) lock onto the eyes of her wilting victims, and in her seeming control of the entrances, exits, and moves of those around her as if they are pieces on her personal chess board. While ostensibly she is out to right a wrong in royal succession, she clearly has really one main goal as she finally admits to Agis: “Every false word I have spoken is because of my love for you.” We are never doubtful that Veronica Renner’s Leonide will hurt the feelings of whomever she must in order snare the hand in marriage of Agis, for as she forthrightly tells Leontine, “What good is love that does not cost?” But the beauty of Veronica Renner’s portrayal is that how can we not be on the side of one so magnetic and vibrant in personality and intelligence.
Stellar too are the performances of Mary Ann Rodgers and David Boyll as the sister/brother pair living in self-imposed retreat from reality and foregoing anything to do with the emotion of love. Leontine tells Leonide, “I do not know what love is” and declares her long-held belief that “the heart is an enemy of peace and serenity.” But as Leonide with much feigned passion showers Leontine with a flood of compliments, the unsuspecting target of the barrage of glowing exaggerations begins to melt in front of us in a performance by Ms. Rodgers that is a delight to witness. Bit by bit, gone is her former frozen, erect posture, her face that rarely has shown emotion; and her hands more used to being clutched in folded arms than now moving about with some new-found giddiness. Bit by bit, she becomes almost like a teenager finding herself in love for the first time.
In a sequence much paralleled, David Boyll’s Hermocrate succumbs to Leonide’s specially designed and powerful rounds of arguments structured to seduce his rational mind in order to shatter his reasons for not opening his heart to love. He too begins to flutter about with a silly look on his much-softened face, a second victim now heads-over-heels in love with someone not as she seems.
Edward Im portrays an Agis that from the get-go is no match for the more mature-looking-and acting Leonide. His Agis is younger in many ways than she, almost appearing as a schoolboy at times. He quickly is under her spell as he immediately forms a friendship for life with whom he thinks is a young man here to learn from his uncle. Leonide knows how to manipulate his emotions; and he willingly falls into her trap. His portraiture of Agis is pleasant and attractive to watch but not convincing that Agis will ever be more than a puppet prince to his much more commanding princess.
Aiding Leonide is her faithful servant and friend, Corine, played with well-engineered restraint and reserve by Susannah Martin as she provides balance to Leonide’s constant intensity.
Interwoven throughout the script are the sources of much of the production’s laugh-out-loud humor and are the two who come near stealing the show from time to time. Wayne Wong is the easily agitated and always animated gardener, Dimas, who speaks in a myriad of vocal tonalities and who spits out malapropisms with firm conviction (“All this double doing is leopardizing my fortune”).
His pal and servant to Hermocrate is literally the clown of the show, Harlequin, who is a stock character straight from the commedia dell’arte tradition that the playwright has comically inserted into his play. Much like Shakespeare’s Puck, Jamin Jollo’s Harlequin is full of mischief; is wise-assed in his cracks and side remarks (oft to us as audience, much like a Groucho Marx); and is so flexible in his constant movements that it is as if his body is made more from rubber than any other substance. That he also wears a half-mask of greatly puffed cheeks and humongous nose and slings his long, blonde locks in every direction as he leaps, falls, and lands upside down only makes his overall performance even more a riot to enjoy.
All their shenanigans and both the truthful and false love matches-in-the-making occur in the lush garden setting designed by Malcolm Rodgers where a center fountain’s circular walk becomes a convenient raceway for multiple chases. In the garden also sit some audience members who often are the focus of Harlequin’s quips and quirks and are sometimes in the midst of all the action themselves. Spense Matubang’s lighting remarkably shifts its intensity to match that of the dialog underway while also helps make the tree-filled setting completely magical. The military feeling of Leonide’s high-laced boots and leathered coat; the austere but attractive dress of Leontine; the clean-cut, boyish outfit of Agis; and of course the multi-colored and piecemeal outfit of Harlequin are just some of the examples of the brilliantly conceived costumes designed by Ashley Renee that are in themselves scripted descriptions of each of the play’s characters.
Maybe love is many splendored; maybe love is what the world needs now. But Marivaux reminds us that love and loving can be messy, complex, heart-breaking, and for sure, sometimes just downright silly. Love is all that and more in Shotgun Players’ not-to-be-missed The Triumph of Love – a play almost three hundred years old but one that smacks of modernity in its honest and hilarious takes on romance.
Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE
The Triumph of Love continues in extended production through April 30, 2023, by Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available at www.shotgunplayers.org or by email at email@example.com.
Photo Credits: Benjamin Krantz