Triumphant masquerade

Dignity Players shift tone, make magic with gender-switching farce

Review

Arundel Live

September 29, 2006|By MARY JOHNSON | MARY JOHNSON,Special to The Sun

With the musical Triumph of Love, Dignity Players founder and artistic director Mickey Handwerger offers much lighter entertainment than the group's usual socially conscious fare.

Dignity Players arrived on the scene a little more than a year ago with The Exonerated, a drama about six death-row inmates whose names were cleared, followed by The Laramie Project on the killing of gay college student Matthew Shepard.

After presenting four dramatic pieces, Handwerger said, he decided to "lighten the mood with Triumph of Love and give everyone permission to laugh."

Adapted by James Magruder from Comedie Francais playwright Pierre de Marivaux's 1732 work, this 1997 musical is a farce about deception. The show encourages us to compare our world to an ancient Greek society without compassion, faith and trust as young men are sent off to kill the enemy.

Despite having met him just once, Spartan Princess Leonide sets out to find the object of her affection, the dethroned prince of Sparta named Agis, who has been raised by his spinster aunt Hesione and philosopher uncle Hermocrates to respect only reason and avoid passions.

Leonide arrives at the prince's estate with her servant, Corine, and through clever deceptions and by assuming gender disguises manages to awaken Agis' passions and stir the dormant fires in his aunt and uncle.

Corine similarly stirs up excitement with gardener Dimas and Harlequin.

The cast of seven singer/actors does justice to Jeffrey Stock's music and Susan Birkenhead's clever lyrics, reminiscent of Sondheim. Beneath their layers of frothy wit and multiple double-entendres are substantive premises.

Eric Lund's spare set boasts regally gold draperies and other delights. In Act I, colorless giant water lily pads become colorful paper parasols in Act II. The set's fairy tale quality works well in the limited stage space. Jean Beall's costumes are most attractive except in one instance when Dan Herrel as Hermocrates seems to be masquerading as Mozart. Music director Mark Hildebrand brought substance to the score.

Sheri Kuznicki is magical as Princess Leonide, funny and touching as she communicates her character's emotional confusion. She lowers her voice to a convincing masculine level when she switches gender and projects a luminosity in her scenes with Agis.

Having admired Kuznicki in roles stretching from Evita to A Chorus Line's Cassie, I don't recall her in any role that seemed so perfectly tailored to her talents. She also brings heartfelt feeling and fine vocal ability to each musical number.

As Prince Agis, Jud Wegner is as handsomely tall as any prince need be, and he possesses one of the best baritone voices in our area. He has great chemistry with Kuznicki, as they proved last month in Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre's Cabaret, where he was Cliff to her Sally.

From the opening number, "This Day of Days," Margaret Allman's Hesione commands our full attention. Allman follows this strong start with a movingly sensitive "Serenity" to end the first act.

As Corine, Wendy Baird is sharp, funny and sexy, showing strong ensemble skills with Dean Davis's Harlequin and Mark Farinas' Dimas. Davis and Farina provide high comedy in "Henchmen are Forgotten" and skillfully handle some tricky dialogue. It moves from stilted 17th-century to current vernacular in a fun stream of I-must-avenge to put-up-your-dukes surprises.

Dan Herrel impresses as repressed philosophizing uncle Hermocrates, whose vulnerability is touching as he discovers his growing attraction to Leonide.

My introduction to Dignity Players at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Dubois Road, off Bestgate Road in Annapolis, inspires me to plan another visit for their November production of Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden.

Triumph of Love continues through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the door. Information: 410-266-8044.

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