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Garden variety
ART and SITI settle La Dispute

La Dispute
By Marivaux. Translated by Gideon Lester. Adapted and directed by Anne Bogart. Set by Neil Patel. Costumes by James Schuette. Lighting by Christopher Akerlind. Soundscape by Darron L. West. With Frank Raiter, Lynn Cohen, Ellen Lauren, Stephen Webber, Lizzy Cooper Davis, Remo Airaldi, Kelly Maurer, Will Bond, Barney O’Hanlon, and Akiko Aizawa. Presented by the American Repertory Theatre in association with the SITI Company at the Loeb Drama Center through February 22.

Love in Marivaux is like mankind in Beckett: born astride a grave. In a dashing production vibrantly acted, adapter/director Anne Bogart and her SITI Company have picked up on the Absurdist vaudevillian lurking in the 18th-century French playwright, turning his 1744 comedy La Dispute into a dance that partners Romper Room with Strindberg — and the human heart with itself. Theater’s aim, the Bard famously said, is " to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature " ; La Dispute holds the mirror (several, actually) up to Love itself, and what’s reflected back is the face of Narcissus.

In the beginning, the audience is the mirror. The 20 members of the La Dispute ensemble take the stage one by one, all but two accoutered in evening black, the styles ranging from Noël Coward to Courtney Love. Staring straight at us, they check their makeup or hair or clothes or, in one case, leather-encased butt. The way they pose and glide, whether SITI vets or ART/MXAT Institute students, reminds you of Bogart’s long-ago Bessie Award for choreography. Indeed, abetted here by Barney O’Hanlon and the music design of Darron L. West, the director comes across like some egghead’s Susan Stroman, devising in a giddy yet sinister prologue a Latin-tinged Contact hovering on the border between Louis XV and the Enlightenment.

That’s pretty much where Marivaux, who wrote some 35 comedies, all about the vagaries of romantic love, lived. Recently his plays, once deemed too French to travel, have enjoyed new popularity, in part due to adapter-director Stephen Wadsworth, who staged his The Game of Love and Chance for the Huntington Theatre Company. Last year, a film version of The Triumph of Love was released. But La Dispute is a curiosity, even by the brittle standards of Marivaudage. An hourlong conjuration of a Skinner Box experiment cooked up by rationalist aristocrats to determine which of the sexes " pioneered betrayal, " it was performed once in 1744 by the Comédie-Française, withdrawn by the author, and not resurrected until 1938!

In the play, a bitter elder couple have argued about the relative infidelity of the sexes; he introduces the results of an experiment engineered after a similar dispute 20 years earlier. On the whim of debating royals, two infants of each sex have been raised in isolation from the world (and each other) by brother-sister keepers who will now release them into a simulated Garden of Eden (actually, a bare stage backed by a burnished-looking maze) and see what happens. As the exhilaratingly attitudinizing dance prologue, in which groups and pairs dive toward one another and are let down, has made clear, the result is not likely to be a PBS special on mating for life.

In the highly physical portrayals of the quartet of SITI actors at the core of the piece (as well as in ART associate artistic director Gideon Lester’s abrupt translation), La Dispute is tender, cynical, and broadly comic. None of the lead actors is 20; they are, in fact, innocents of a certain age, in keeping with Bogart’s conceit that all the variously gorgeous and angry members of the ensemble stand in for the acrimonious older couple. Yet Ellen Lauren, the buff, evening-gowned Églé, exudes the goofy innocence of youth drunk on itself even as she sparks with sexual attention to her worshipful opposite, Stephen Webber’s dazedly gallant, hungrily hand-kissing Azor.

Eventually these self-smitten lovers are brought together with Kelly Maurer’s puckish, pixie-coiffed Adine and Will Bond’s Dudley Moore–ish Mesrin, impish in tuxedo, silk scarf, and no shirt. And it’s mix and match, adore and spurn: just like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but without Oberon’s bewitching " little western flower. " As Marivaux might assert, the course of true love never did run true, forget about smooth. And just as Églé, like Will Rogers, never meets a man she doesn’t like, the two women are destined to duke it out, here in a hilarious contest that runs from shrill vocalizing to headstands and, finally, a cartoon duel with increasingly formidable inflatables. Lauren and Maurer are gifted physical comediennes, and, in their antics, Lucille Ball meets Denis Diderot. (The gents’ locker-room bonding, with its whiff of homosexuality, is also a stitch.)

What’s remarkable is that in the midst of these shenanigans (which some might feel defy the delicacy of Marivaux), Lauren’s Églé, in particular, conveys the confusion and pain of love birthing and dying quicker than a mayfly, not to mention the callous pragmatism of wanting a replacement. In such skilled hands, La Dispute is a cautionary delight. And unlike love too long on the plate, the intermissionless show is cleared away before it grows stale.

Issue Date: February 13 - 20, 2003
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