'Triumph of Love'' finds new relevance in 18th-century comedy

THEATER

October 15, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Princess Leonide has a problem. She's fallen in love at first sight with Prince Agis. But he's been raised to despise her because she inherited the throne that is rightfully his.

And that's not all. Agis lives in seclusion with a philosopher named Hermocrate and Hermocrate's sister, both of whom have not only sworn off love, they shun society to the point of turning away all visitors.

What's a princess to do?

Well, since Leonide is the heroine of a play called "The Triumph of Love," it's a good bet that her love will triumph in the end.

And Center Stage's production, directed by Irene Lewis and using a new, breezy translation by James Magruder, is a minor triumph in itself, resuscitating this semi-obscure 18th-century comedy by the long-overlooked French playwright Marivaux.

But back to Leonide's predicament. To get close to Agis, scheming Leonide must first get close to Hermocrate and his sister -- a feat she accomplishes by duping them into abandoning their principles and falling in love with her.

However, neither one is actually in love with her, because Leonide has disguised herself -- and her gender -- and adopted a series of aliases, which are too complicated to enumerate here. The important thing is that chameleon-like Leonide is such a forceful woman that, while she offended 18th-century critics, her resourceful, opportunistic personality makes her right at home in 1990s America.

But modern as Leonide may seem, she's tricky to portray -- particularly since she not only tells her prey exactly what they want to hear, but she does it by adopting their own attitudes and speech patterns. Pamela Gray, who is onstage for most of the play, does not yet seem completely comfortable in this large, complex role. She is at her best when Leonide has to change course in midstream; you can almost see the wheels turning in her head when Hermocrate initially scorns her love and she then appeals to his intellectual vanity, beseeching him to teach her to scorn love, too.

The other actors fit more smoothly into their less convoluted roles, particularly Jay Goede, whose Agis touchingly conveys the awkwardness of a young man caught off-guard by first love. One of director Lewis' more interesting choices is casting coarse-looking Mario Arrambide as over-refined Hermocrate. It's a choice that reinforces the hypocritical nature of the character, and Arrambide is especially funny when love transforms his rigid, hulking presence into that of a bashful child.

Composer John Gromada's irreverent incidental music, combined with Neil Patel's classically inspired set, create an atmosphere in which anything can, and frequently does, happen. And, in a play about a woman wearing the pants -- in part to outsmart a man -- costume designer Jess Goldstein wisely emphasizes the point with accessible, trouser-based designs.

A final word on the notion of cross-dressing to win the heart of a member of the same sex. Marivaux didn't merely show the triumph of love, he showed that, when it comes to gender, love is sometimes blind, and at other times easily, or willingly, fooled. In this respect, "The Triumph of Love" is as up-to-date as the seemingly incredible real-life incident that inspired David Henry Hwang's gender-bending movie and play, "M. Butterfly."

"The Triumph of Love"

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., most Sundays at 7:30 p.m., matinees Oct. 20 at 1 p.m. and most Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.; through Nov. 7

Tickets: $10-$35

Call: (410) 332-0033

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