With some effort, I remained awake throughout Theater Works' production of Triumph of Love the other night. The lucky ladies on my left, who snoozed all through Act One, were spared the two head-splitting hours of "entertainment" that have haunted me ever since.
Triumph of Love is a translation of obscure 18th-century French playwright Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux's commedia dell'arte play about sex and deception. Translated by James Magruder, who also wrote the book, Triumph contains 14 of the least-hummable songs in the history of musical theater, and a tortuous plot that's barely worth keeping track of.
Here's the short version: The Spartan princess Leonide has fallen in love with Agis, the former prince of Sparta whose throne Leonide's family long ago stole away. Agis has been raised by his bookish uncle and aunt, Hermocrates and Hesione, who've taught him to live by his wits and to disdain passion. Anyone who guessed that disguises and gender-swapping figure in the plot would be right, although only the best Bard scholar could keep up with the long list of boys our fair maiden impersonates in order to fool everyone into letting her snog the oafish prince.
For all of this fluffy nonsense to work which it apparently did in its 1997 Broadway run starring Betty Buckley and F. Murray Abraham it must be played fast and funny. Long bits about mistaken identity and girls disguised as boys require a certain level of acting talent, and forgettable tunes can sometimes be sold with an interesting reading or a magnificent voice. But this production, directed by local actor Jim Linde, limps stiffly along, dragging lazy performances and lifeless musical accompaniment across its cheaply dressed stage.
Set designer Michael Peck must have bought out the entire silk-plant department at Jo-Ann Fabrics to create Hermocrates' "garden," a mass of rubber shrubs and Astroturf that's almost ugly enough to distract us from the dreary performances it contains. But not quite. As Leonide, Janine Smith isn't convincing as either a man or a woman, although her passionless playing is at least well-matched to her leading man's: Jarrod Fowler's doleful droning made me wonder why any woman, princess or commoner, would waste a fortnight trying to snag him. I confess to being captivated by the awfulness of Ronee Korbin Steiner's rigid performance of Hesione, but only annoyed by Jonathan Ivie's unsubtle turn as Dimas, a dimwitted gardener. Linde appears to have asked Ivie to waggle his substantial eyebrows after every punch line, an affectation that makes Ivie's bothersome performance unbearable. Only the listless playing of the six-piece orchestra is more annoying than Ivie's endless clowning.
Amid all this mediocrity, Dion Johnson offers an entertaining performance as a harlequin named Harlequin. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, he trips through an appropriately showy reading of some dotty double entendres not worth repeating here. Unfortunately, Johnson's charisma and mad mugging aren't enough to carry this show, which requires more and better talent than Theater Works has assembled here. As it is, this Triumph of Love is no triumph at all.
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