Reviewed by Will Stackman
The final offering for the season from the A.R.T. is another dismal reconception of a minor classic, this time one of Pierre Marivaux's philosophical comedies from pre-Revolutionary France. While their joint production with the SITI company of his "La Dispute" had some amusement value, in part from its evocative setting, this distorted version of "L'Ile des Esclaves" is set in grungy theatrical locale, this time by David Zinn, using ideas left over from "Orpheus X," which ran last month. Instead of an island off Greece ruled by escaped slaves, director Robert Woodruff has designated the locale to be a rundown basement club featuring drag queens, presided over by Trivelin, a moralist played byThomas Derrah in a blond wig. This M.C. with a suggestive name is the one of the five original speaking characters in Marivaux's 11 scene dissertation on overbearing masters and long-suffering servants, and their mutual dependence.
The first pairing of master and slave washed up on this mythical shore is John Campion, whose most notable part at the ART in the past few seasons was Oedipus, as irasible Iphicrate with ART veteran, Remo Airaldi as Arlequin, his downtrodden smart-aleck slave. Next comes ART original member Karen MacDonald as Euphrosine, a hard taskmistress and her sullen maid, Cleanthis, played by newcomer Fiona Gallagher. MacDonald will be reprising her award-winning performance in Sartre's "No Exit" later in the month, along with Will Lebow and Paula Plum on the teeter-totter set. The premise of Marivaux's comedy. blown much out of proportion in this production, is that under the rule of this island's inhabitants, masters must become slaves and vice versa. Indeed, we first see MacDonald in sort of a home movie, which Trivelin watches as sort of a prologue, hurrying to the theatre in costume followed by Gallagher. The impression is of a madwoman and her keeper, given the elaborate get-up Zinn has devised for her. Her finery however is nothing compared the showgirl outfits on the five professional drag queens representing the inhabitants.
Using carnival logic, this chorus (Freddy Franklin, Ryan Carpenter, Adam Shanahan, Airline Inthyrath, and Santio C. Cupon) is supposed to highlight the reversal of the castaway's fortunes . Instead their high-volume intrusions manage to overshadow the arguments of the play, try as the experienced cast might to get through translated versions of the original confrontations. By the time the situation is reconciled, with mutual apologies, the audience is just glad the 90 minutes of high-volume antics are over, though some might find such over-the-top camping "fun." It should be noted that the "insulaires" are seen only briefly in the original script when the four shipwrecked principals are introduced. Here they intimidate them, and at one point, having taken her clothes and given her a pig mask, strap MacDonald to a knife throwers target, spinning her head over heels while throwing paint at her. One gets the feeling that the director feels the need to drive whatever point he's trying to make home, or perhaps keep the audience paying attention more to his physical images than Marivaux's intellectual content.
While Campion and Airaldi manage to establish a layered conflict in scene one, the rest of the evening lurches from strident argument to outlandish lip-syncing by the chorus.. The original show played 127 times between 1725-1768 in the repertory of the Theatre-Italien, an evolved commedia troupe, despite the French court's lack of enthusiasm for its preaching against the mistreatment of servants. The play was revived in the repertory of the Comedie-Francaise in 1930 and has had success recently in English language productions even here in the States. But ramping up the stakes of "L'Ile des Esclaves" rather timid morality to the level of this outlandish effort, as in the ART's previous excursion with "La Dispute," results in another exercise of blatant theatricality, this time tinged with the theatre of cruelty accomplishing little more than titillation. If there's a lesson about man's inhumanity to man being taught, it's more typified by the artistic license exercised onstage than by anything in this ill-served text. Admittedly, the original is short--the ART's production runs 90 minutes continuous with interpolations--but Marivaux's drama is well-constructed and deserves to be heard for itself. It would be interesting to see "Island of Slaves" presented in conjunction with an actual commedia piece from the period, for example, rather than inflated by spectacle. Reminding the audience of the premises underlying the play would be more instructive, and probably more entertaining, than all the "booty shaking" and faux humiliation currently being presented.