Blackbird Theatre

Marivaux’s The Triumph of Love

Translated by John van Burek

Dates 18 – 26 May 2007 @ 20.00 Monday-Saturday; Matinees 23 & 26 May @ 14.00; No performance 20 May
Venue Vancouver East Cultural Centre

Director Johna Wright Set/Props/Costumes Karyn McCallum Lighting Jegus Michal Oprsal Sound Alexander Brendan Ferguson Stage Manager Robin Bancroft-Wilson

Reviewer J H Stape

As a theatrical experience Blackbird Theatre's production of Marivaux's Triumph of Love (1732) is an embarrassing travesty, repeatedly sinking under the confused and frequently tasteless directorial concept of Johnna Wright, a mish-mash of styles that is literally all over the place. The "boing!"-ing seats in that torture chamber where, in Vancouver, "serious" theatre lives out a threatened half-life from "yuk-yuk" to "yuk-yuk" added a truly comic commentary to what was happening on stage.

Amidst this catastrophe some of the veteran players managed to stay afloat and even turn in good performances, but some of the younger cast, who seemed to have received their training in TV sitcom, came across as simply goofy and high schoolish. There's nothing quite as terrible as a terrible night at the theatre, and well before the half-way point of this one I nearly began to lose my will to live.

This supposed dialogue about love and reason was cheapened by John van Burek's slangy, often vulgar, translation, as if characters named Phocion and Hermocrate lived in the 'Burbs or were the Beverley Hillbillies gone Greek, but somehow they were still princesses and philosophers. There was little distinction in class levels in point of language or behaviour, and a sense of the artificiality and brittleness of Marivaux's society was never attempted. As for subtlety, points were laid on with a trawl -- when there were any to make. Thus, when the older Hermocrate finds he is attracted to Leonide we get them dancing to a crooner doing Kurt Weill's "It's a long, long time from May to September." The most apt line of the night --"I don't know what's going on" -- richly described the director's mental state.

The play is "updated" to the 1930s, but that is arbitrary and never for a moment illuminating, though it gives an opportunity for some very pretty costumes. The translation, the Director's Notes tell us, reminded the director of Cole Porter because of the dated slang, and well, there we are a perfect match, eh, so let's set it then and we get to have Porter as background music and for some dances.

Little of Marivaux survives this grindingly brutal mangling, and although the Director says that this play "resonates through the centuries" one leaves the theatre wondering why. Here it's been reduced to the level of sitcom, with roisterous-boisterous stage business, much running about, visual gags, and some dances gratuitously tossed in. If Marivaux had something to say about his society or the general condition of humanity and its foibles, it certainly gets buried -- deeply.

The actors mainly muddle through a concept that never justifies itself and takes no pains to illuminate the play's issues -- there's lots of jumping around and squeals and facial contortions -- and lines are delivered at breakneck speed, perhaps just to get over them. Jennifer Lines (Phocion) often delivered hers like a gattling-gun, and she had two registers relentlessly plumbed: overly loud or cloyingly sentimental. Why no fewer than three characters fell in love with her was a complete mystery. Not for a second was there any charm -- the text tells us that she has it and that's that.

Simon Webb (Hermocrate) conveyed the philosopher finding a heart with considerable skill, modulating his facial expressions and his voice, and putting some sense into this otherwise flailing production, as did Marie Stillin in the role of Leontyne, his sister, also belatedly discovering love.

As Hermocrates' gardener, Dimas, Lee Taylor likewise strutted his stuff as a veteran actor who knew his way round the stage and his lines. Andrew McNee's Harlequin was way over the top most of the time -- and quickly became tiresome, while Luisa Jojic as Hermidas, the Princess's side-kick (that's how she played it), and Daniel Arnold as Agis, the main love interest, seem to have walked in from a high school production and were just gormless.

The programme boldly states that "Blackbird Theatre is a professional company dedicated to performing the classics." In a city where going to the theatre is basically a night out for a good "har-har," that's a noble aim, but one has to say something about "the classics" not just throw them up on the stage with a half-baked concept, give them to actors with no classical training, and hope that that will somehow galvanize them into life.

There was no sense in this awful mess that an ageless work was being illuminated, that its inner workings had been understood, or, sadder still, that it was being treated as if it had something to say. The yodels and cheers from the actors' and directors' many friends in the audience may have sounded pleasant to their ears at an opening night papered with the theatrical community, but this was a ghastly affair -- a classic "stinka."

Blackbird seems to have lost track of its mandate: if you've got to reduce the classics to pablum, don't bother doing them. There are enough other troupes in the city where thought is a no-go zone and pablum's the annual bread-and butter that puts bums in seats.

© 2007 J H Stape