by Marivaux
Translated and directed by John Van Burek
Starring Arsinee Khanjian and Andrew Pifko
Artword Theatre until May 26
75 Portland Street/416-366-7723

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

Counterfeit Secrets marks Pleiades Theatre's third production by French playwright Marivaux (1688-1763). They produced The Game of Love in 2000 and The Triumph of Love in 2001. I saw neither of these plays, both directed by John Van Burek, the company's artistic director, so the current work is my introduction to both the writer and the producing company.

There's no doubt that Van Burek and the folks at Pleiades deserve a lot of credit. In a city where plays struggle to get the attention they require and so rarely receive, a small production of a classic French play is closer to David taking on Goliath than you might at first think. This producing company has eight actors in Artword Theatre's attractive, comfortable and modest 150-seat house. The designs, though not always successful, are far and away more gutsy than you find in other similarly scaled theatres, and so the audience has every reason to know that they are getting more than their money's worth. I'd like to be able to say that the results on everyone's part are as inspiring as their considerable efforts.

Perhaps a too-short rehearsal period has prevented Van Burek from defining a central shape and purpose. If he has a point of view or a theme that he wishes to pursue, it is fairly absent from the staging. And apart from a programme note that suggests he is disinclined to prod his actors into an archaic style of presentation, there's little evidence that this ensemble has had the time or the interest in establishing any cohesion. The results are, at best, eclectic and, at most, rag-tag for most of the two intermissionless hours.

Bill Webster, playing an amiable lawyer, is the production's foundation. His clarity of speech and pointed characterization make the language (translated by Van Burek) manageable and wholly credible. Thomas Hauff and Peter Haworth are also rooted in the roles they play, never forcing themselves on the audience and always in control of the play's language. But these three play supporting roles that cannot carry the full weight of the evening.

Arsinee Khnajian, billed more prominently than the playwright or the director, plays Araminte, a young widow. Her age is never specified, but since she plays opposite Andrew Pifko, it appears that the play is more about older woman-younger man than it is about love among chronological equals. Khanjian and Marivaux aren't an ideal match, at least not in this reading of the text. Hands aflutter, movements erratic and propulsive and voice mostly shrill, she provides no shape to the role and certainly no overriding quality that explains her allure to various of her dedicated gentlemen.

Pifko is stifled by the role of Dorante, though he does make every effort to play a romantic without apologizing for it. Bound both by formal language and rigid physical bearing, he has not yet found a way to apply the expansive quality that has marked his more recent stage work. Xuan Fraser, as the conniviing servant Dubois, leers and sneers his way through his performance as though we couldn't figure the guy out for ourselves.

The set design by Andjelica Djuric deals a pretty deadly blow to the pace and the sense of the whole. Most of the actors push and pull set pieces about the stage as though there was genuine purpose served by their schlepping. The relentless movement of walls, chairs and arches is, finally, nothing more than relentless movement, and nothing and no one is helped in the process. What deeper meaning there might be to the strident contrasts of red and white is left somewhere offstage.

The final bows also reflect a bizarre -- one might even say arcane -- fascination with theatre as it might once have been. The ensemble appears for a company bow. Several of them exit, leaving a few principal players for our further applause. Finally, Ms. Khanjian is left to take her solo bow. The moment passes without incident or noticeable increase in audience frenzy. With a full house, this might be a token nod to the power of film and television familiarity, but what it may more accurately speak to is a calibrated measure of value that belies true ensemble playing.

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