Love's Labors

“What do you want?” is the recurring question in Stephen Wadsworth's elegant translation/adaptation of Changes of Heart, Marivaux's 1723 French comedy now playing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. As each of the characters begins to grapple with the answer, each must also confront the cost of achieving her or his deepest desires. Everything — and everyone, it seems — has its price, and paying it will lead to growth, heartache, and, it is hoped, true love. In this gorgeous and carefully paced production, none of the answers is easy and none of the characters has a free ride. It's as wondrously complicated as a finely wrought tapestry, as satisfying as a banquet.

This is director Wadsworth's third outing at Berkeley Rep, having introduced another Marivaux comedy, The Triumph of Love, and staged Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, both to enormous acclaim. Changes of Heart shows more of what interests this director and allows further insight into the way his directorial style illuminates his favorite themes. If Marivaux is concerned with the shifting world of the 18th century and the consequences of abrupt change, Wadsworth is captivated by the emotional mechanics of change, by silence and its power onstage, by the private drama behind the public play. Rather than concentrate exclusively on the action as plotted, he focuses on the moments before and after an action, like a composer drawing attention to the rests in the music rather than the notes. Or a poet to the spaces between the stanzas. Or a painter to white areas of the canvas.

Wadsworth calls these other disciplines to mind because he makes such full and eloquent use of each in his particular art form. Everything contains everything else, in microcosm or miniature. For instance, the set, by Thomas P. Lynch, shown off to advantage by Jennifer Norris' lighting: a rich, burnished, 18th-century palace drawing room whose deep reds, browns, and golds complement the autumnal trees glimpsed out the windows. Yes, it's lovely, but it's also purposeful: The play is about change, the sadness associated with change, and the death of summerish naivetŽ.

Similarly, the breathtaking costumes by Martin Pakledinaz reflect autumnal themes: dark blues or blacks; pale golds; or soft velvets of fading green, augmented by an unexpected accent of rust. The players become like leaves, poised for their fall at the height of their beauty.

The plot has all the elements of a baroque fugue: A prince (Jeff Woodman) has abducted Silvia (Francesca Faridany), a young commoner, with the intention of marrying her. To his (and everyone else's) amazement, she refuses him, insisting that she be returned at once to her lover, Harlequin (Bray Poor). Confused and captivated by Silvia's ingenuousness, the prince turns to his trusted friend Flaminia (Marceline Hugot), who agrees to create a deception to win over the reluctant bride.

Flaminia's plan is to undermine the lovers by showing them that they, too, are vulnerable to various weaknesses of character. She sends for Harlequin and tempts him with the artful wiles of her sister, the beautiful Lisette (Miriam Laube). But Harlequin, too, is apparently incorruptible, at least in matters of love. He spurns Lisette and dismisses her as a coquette, prompting Flaminia to take on the challenge herself.

Of course — as Marivaux reminds us — everyone has his price. The prince's servant Trivelin (Laurence O'Dwyer) discovers that Harlequin's weakness is his appetite; he can be lured with the wonders of the prince's table. Harlequin is also receptive to what he believes is honesty in others, and his utter willingness to be candid in turn disarms with unexpected results.

Silvia finds herself susceptible to the opinions of the ladies-in-waiting and is also surprised at how thoroughly she enjoys the life of the court. After rejecting the prince in his formal bewigged attire, she is further amazed to encounter a handsome guardsman (the prince in disguise) with whom she had traded flirtatious glances back in her village.

But the biggest surprises, perhaps, are left to the plotters. Lisette learns what it means to love; the prince places friendship over his own desires; and Flaminia's manipulations backfire when she discovers her own genuine feeling for Harlequin.

Everyone plumbs the unexpected depths of her or his own heart, and the victors learn that to realize their dreams is a complicated exercise in pain, both for themselves and those whose desires must necessarily be thwarted.

It's heady stuff, and Wadsworth's production leaves no detail untended in order to get the point across. But this isn't school, it's theater. And thankfully the experience is as entertaining as it is thoughtful. Actors are choreographed like dancers, and they circle the stage in pursuit of one another and their own desired objectives. They are clownish and true to their commedia types up until each's moment of truth. The spellbinding scene between Harlequin and the prince comes to mind, when they unmask emotionally and literally for one another.

Even more affecting are Laube as the vanquished coquette Lisette and O'Dwyer as the deadpan servant Trivelin: When he risks his heart at long last, his agony is swift, understated, and unbearably eloquent. I also adored the spirited Faridany's Silvia and the deliciously well-spoken Hugot's eager and playful Flaminia.

But the central presence in Changes of Heart is director Wadsworth: his devotion to private moments, his exploration of the all-important seconds before an event, and the languid moments after — those suspended instants between instants when everything actually happens. He, more than any theater artist I've had the privilege of observing, cherishes the profundity of silence and manages to articulate the secrets of the heart.

The Geary Theater homecoming celebration was very moving, really, in spite of all the glitz and hoopla. Everyone was there. For about 10 minutes, until the ushers figured out he wasn't with the VIPs, Willie Brown sat right in front of me. Carey Perloff seemed emotionally overwhelmed as she welcomed the audience home to the Geary. Former ACT stars like Annette Bening, RenŽ Auberjonois, and Andrea Marcovicci entertained. Co-founder and former Artistic Director Ed Hastings paid tribute to the late Bill Ball. Students from the Conservatory played a scene from Shakespeare. Quintessential San Francisco institutions like the Gay Men's Chorus, the S.F. Ballet, and the S.F. Opera performed. Beach Blanket Babylon's Val Diamond wore a fabulous new Geary Theater hat and led us all in a heartfelt rendition of “San Francisco.”

Afterward, walking to my car on deserted late-night streets, I felt gratitude for theater itself and immense appreciation to those who have restored this treasured piece of history to our city. What I found myself thinking was, Welcome home, Geary Theater. We missed you.

Changes of Heart runs through Feb. 23 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre ; call (510) 845-4700.

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