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[Theater reviews]

Myth battles farce in Amphitryon


By Molière. Translated by Richard Wilbur. Directed by Darko Tresnjak. Set design by David P. Gordon. Costumes by Linda Cho. Lighting by Frances Aronson. Sound by Jerry Yager. With Liam Craig, Valérie MacCarthy, Brooks Ashmanskas, Dan Snook, Rita Pietropinto, Marissa Matrone, and Ryan Shively. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Boston University Theatre through April 8.

From 1668 comes a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of cloning. And we’re not talking Dolly the sheep here — more like Leda and the swan, without the bestiality. In Molière’s Amphitryon, a comic yet troubling take on the myth involving yet another of Jupiter’s bed tricks, the randy god takes the form of the Greek general of the title in order to sleep with his wife. “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods,/They kill us for their sport,” says Gloucester in King Lear. And even if they don’t kill us, Amphitryon suggests, they have fun raping and slapping us around. Strange business for a comedy, which may explain why, though the eminent American translator of Molière, Richard Wilbur, rendered the play in elegant vers libre in 1994, it has not until now received a major professional production.

Enter new Huntington Theatre Company artistic director Nicholas Martin (who shares an agent with Wilbur) and an intrepid young director of theater and opera, Darko Tresnjak, who has staged Molière’s discomforting farce pageant with bold nods to both its dark and its daffy sides. It is hard to imagine that the two halves could ever be reconciled, at least in accord with a modern sensibility that’s likely to regard godly behavior in Amphitryon as more sadistic than amusing. Still, the elaborate production is impressive. And you have to hand it to Tresnjak and his collaborators for marrying the Three Stooges to a court masque.

To begin with, Amphitryon is not what we expect from Molière — though it does touch on some of his favored themes, including the amoral arrogance of the powerful and the torture of marriage. Molière’s better-known, 17th-century-set works combine commedia with fierce satire. Both low comedy and social criticism are on view here as well, but in a classical setting that marries Thebes to cloud-cuckooland and that, in set designer David P. Gordon’s Baroque vision, includes puffy clouds on tent poles and cherubs whizzing down slides from Heaven.

As the play begins, before a skewed representation of a classical palace, a gold statue descends, to be replaced upon its ascent by a handsome man in short tunic and full armor: Jupiter as Amphitryon, headed for the sheets. Meanwhile, above the roof, a chariot floats on bearing the goddess Night. “Whoa, charming Night!” orders Jupiter’s messenger boy, Mercury. Whereupon the two divinities, their voices slightly amplified, carry on a sly conversation about godly decorum and the inferiority of things on “the human plane.” In Tresnjak’s staging, as befits pageantry more redolent of early French opera than of The Misanthrope, Night is played by sparklingly catlike classical singer Valéry MacCarthy, whose wordless arias capture the sadness floating beneath Amphitryon’s comedy of errors and exploitation. After all, for Jupiter the play’s main event is just a one-night stand (which results in the birth of Hercules). But for Amphitryon and would-be-faithful wife Alcmena, even after the thunder sounds and the Olympian honcho appears in full shine to clear things up, it creates a permanent marital wedge.

Molière treats the Amphitryon myth with considerable lightness, going so far as to have Mercury and Night toss themselves off as the invention of “the poets.” Tresnjak tweaks the script’s fairy-tale tone in a number of ways, among them making Jupiter a bit of a grandstanding buffoon and portraying the cuckolded Amphitryon as less insensitively outraged than genuinely hurt. Always, the director stresses the vertical nature of the stage picture; the gods, when they aren’t making trouble on terra firma, smugly watch the results of their manipulation from the peak of the roof. Jupiter even plays one winking, bravura scene to the Olympian crowd, which applauds.

What most interests Tresnjak is clearly the hierarchy in the play, which descends from master god to servant god to human master to human lackey. Sosia, Amphitryon’s servant (the part played by Molière), is so used to being at the bottom of the heap that he politely allows his very identity to be usurped by Mercury, who is in Liam Craig’s dexterous turn the stick-cracking embodiment of deflected cruelty. But watching Craig’s glittery approximation of Sosia beat up on Brooks Ashmanskas’s prosaic real one is more painful than hilarious. Ashmanskas does everything he can — from earnest puzzling to wild kibitzing — to milk the script for comedy. But with its combination of gilded myth and slapstick, it proves a stubborn cow.

Despite the imaginative production, Molière’s play, a success in his lifetime but rarely done today, comes off as jarring rather than magical. Wilbur’s translation is graceful and often whimsical, and the actors handle its aria-like speeches well enough. Moreover, the ornate Huntington production manages to be beautiful and arch at the same time. The final image — of Amphitryon and Alcmena (whom Molière does not include in the last act but Tresnjak brings on in a winter mien) separated by a sheer map of the heavens — is striking. And there is able acting, especially by Rita Pietropinto as a fiery Alcmena, Ashmanskas, and Craig. But Amphitryon is more curiosity than a classic.

Issue Date: March 22-29, 2001