René Descartes' famous 1637 dictum, "Cogito, ergo sum" — "I think, therefore I am" — towers over Cal Shakes/San Jose Rep's co-production of The Triumph of Love. Etched in gold atop an imposing wrought iron gate at the back of the stage, the saying forms the very backbone of Western philosophy. While Descartes' axiom is usually considered an effort to prove existence, it is also a statement about the supremacy of reason over emotion. But like many aspects of adaptor/director Lillian Groag's delightfully bonkers take on Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux's comedy of misplaced flirtations, Descartes' words are to be treated with utmost irony.
The Triumph of Love might take place in the garden of a puritanical philosopher, but rational thought is nowhere to be found among the bountiful apple orchards and pristinely clipped topiary of Kate Edmunds' neoclassical garden set design. Even the trimmed hedgerows betray a mischievous side — a half-eaten apple and odd bits of weed stick out from the otherwise hermetically sealed neatness of the landscape. From the plot to the performances, Marivaux and his modern-day interpreters at the Bruns Amphitheater create a universe where madness and misrule hold sway, where passions dictate principles, and clowns win the day.
When Louis XV's Italian theater company first performed The Triumph of Love at the French court in 1732, the denouement alone was enough to throw audiences into a frenzy. The story follows the fortunes of the Spartan Princess Léonide as she attempts, through underhanded means, to win the affections of the banished Prince Agis, a philosophy student as handsome as he is hateful of women and cynical about Cupid's power. In order to get close to Agis, Léonide disguises herself as a young man by the name of Phocion. Together with her similarly camouflaged attendant, Corine, the two present themselves at the home of the philosopher Hermocrates, Agis' mentor and guardian, with the aim of wooing the young scholar away. Unfortunately, the women's disguises lack credibility and Hermocrates and his servants are quick to spot the curves underneath the manly frock coats. The exposure forces Léonide to take desperate measures. Facing banishment from the object of her desire, she finds a way to reel in both Hermocrates and his spinsterly sister, Léontine, with her feminine/masculine wiles.
Eighteenth-century sensibilities reacted strongly against the spaghetti-junction contrivances of Marivaux's plot. Theatergoers couldn't believe that a princess would demean her royal station by tricking such dignified elders as the philosopher and his sister in so dissolute a fashion. "This intrigue would have better suited a simple bourgeoise than a Spartan princess," the April 1732 edition of the Mercure de France scolded. "The Triumph of Love does not rank among the best of Mr. Marivaux's plays," Le Journal Littéraire concurred. The initial production was canceled after only six performances.
While the plot doesn't have the same maddening effect on audiences today, Groag and her collaborators still manage to convey the irrational spirit of the dramatist's world. At the center of Groag's carnival-esque vision are Marivaux's commedia dell'arte-inspired clowns. Back in the Italian Renaissance, characters like Hermocrates' bumpkin gardener Dimas and his pesky-as-a-mosquito manservant Arlecchino were known as zanni. I can think of no better word than "zany" to describe Ron Campbell and Danny Scheie's hilarious double act in those two respective roles. They do more than clothe the comedy in a straitjacket. They pack it off to the loony bin and eat the key.
Scheie and Campbell are not only consummate comic performers. They are commedia dell'arte zanni in modern form. Seventeenth-century theatrical comedians were clowns for life — they were pretty much typecast in those roles from play to play. Whether embodying Lancelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice or Sir Novelty Fashion in Restoration Comedy, Scheie pushes his comedic muse to the limit. His take on Arlecchino is no exception. Twirling erratically about the stage in green with the biggest codpiece you've ever seen, Scheie looks like a libidinous leprechaun. Seemingly incapable of keeping his feet on the ground or his mouth shut, it's hard at times to tell whether the character is training to be in the corps de ballet or is having trouble keeping an invisible puppy from making love to his ankles. Either way, he appears to have taken complete leave of his senses. It's no wonder that the other characters in Groag and Frederick Kluck's vivacious adaptation either try to avoid or disown him. "Who is that?" is the sort of question that hangs around Arlecchino like grass stains on the gardener's knees. "We have no idea who that little man is," is one typical response.
Campbell's career is similarly entrenched in comic roles. Besides making conventional clowns like The Tempest's Stephano lurchingly funny, Campbell even finds the inner buffoon in such traditionally straight characters as Herod in Oscar Wilde's Salomé. His Dimas is a classic hick — a slow-talkin', word-mulchin', baggy-assed dreamer. Operating on bovine time, Campbell provides the perfect counterpoint to Scheie's clucking, pecking Arlecchino. But while Scheie's extrovert antics occasionally become wearing (the actor seems intent on upstaging everyone else in the play) Campbell manages to keep enough of a lid on his tomfoolery to both amuse and intrigue us without constantly having to be the center of attention. Sheie's Arlecchino has one good party trick up his sleeve. His ability to control the water coming out of the blind, pissing Cupid fountain that occupies one corner of Hermocrates' garden is a great cause of mystery and fun throughout the production. But Campbell's Dimas has his own understated appetite for magic. In one lovely section when he's alone on stage, the character, momentarily transformed into a giant, knock-kneed Sugar Plum Fairy, attaches apples to a nearby tree in perfect time with the ting of a triangle in the accompanying musical score.
The Looney Tunes atmosphere created by these two clowns inevitably spills over into practically every other aspect of the production. Embellishing Marivaux's text with bizarre references to kumquats and breaking the fourth wall by slipping into traditional English pantomime mode and inviting audience members to join in with shouts of "Oh yes I do!"/"Oh no you don't!" is the least of it. The sound, lighting, and set design are right out of a postmodern comic book. The costumes might be frothy, neoclassical creations, but the basic look and feel of the production is Golden Age Hollywood, complete with artificial-looking scenery and lighting (the overriding tint is Listerine green), swirling, epic music, and a panoply of canned sound effects. We could be on the lot of a Douglas Fairbanks movie circa 1932. The dazzling ginger wig and goofy-heroic grin of Jud Williford's Agis further point to this possibility. By the end of the first half, we, like the poor, besotted philosopher and his sister, have no clue which way is up. By the end of the second, we're totally — and thrillingly — confounded.
Yet in one crucial way, all this madness lacks method. It's one thing for Stacy Ross' determined Léonide to coo and cajole the oldies into thinking she's infatuated with them. But it's quite another when she directs the cooing and cajoling at her true heart's desire, Agis. Perhaps Groag's production goes too far in ridiculing Descartes' dictum. With nothing to differentiate the tone of Léonide's fake wooing scenes from that of the real deal, love becomes little more than a flimsy game. This does a disservice both to the play and to Cupid. For deep down, even the most irrational of fancies has a rational core.