Playful Rendering of Moliere’s “Lovers’ Quarrels”

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Photo credit: Roger Metcalf

Presented by imaginary beasts
By Molière
Directed by Matthew Woods
Translation by Richard Wilbur

March 28 – April 19, 2014
At the Plaza Black Box Theatre
Boston Center for the Arts
Boston MA
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Review by Gillian Daniels

(Boston) imaginary beasts’ production of Lovers’ Quarrels is less concerned with emotional authenticity than the beauty of its artifice.  The 17th century romantic comedy is not exactly a work of realism, and thankfully, is not treated as such.  Its plot hinges on a girl who has been raised as a boy, Ascagne (Lynn R. Guerra), tricking a young man she likes, Valère (Will Jobs), into marriage by pretending to be her extremely feminine sister, Lucile (Erin Eva Butcher). imaginary beasts presents this material with all the seriousness it deserves, creating an innocent, funny romp through improbable obstacles.

Matthew Woods’ and Deidre Benson’s set recalls a dream-like landscape, with clouds painted on the stage’s centerpiece and paper-lanterns hung above the audience. This bright cheerfulness is accentuated by Cotton Talbot-Mink and Erica Desautels’ harlequin costumes and personality-based animal masks, which recalls a circus carousel and perhaps, though this is my own theory, the early-twentieth century, clown-populated, dream-logic newspaper strip by Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland.  Regardless of the inspiration, it’s all gorgeous.  The music cues are equally delightful but more contemporary. While the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly sets the scene for the rivalry between Valère and Éraste (the comically maudlin William Schuller), the Western flavor is a little jarring.  “Mahna Mahna,” a song popularized by The Muppets, matches the tone much better.

The story concerns three sets of lovers confused by one another’s actions, beginning when Éraste is convinced his lover, Lucile, has been untrue to him.  This also causes a rift between their lower class counterparts, Éraste’s buffoonish valet, Gros-René (Amy Meyer), and Lucile’s lady’s maid, Marinette (Beth Pearson, who has the best facial reactions of the show).  The rumor of Lucile’s infidelity has a source, however, as her cross-dressing “brother,” Ascagne, has somehow convinced Valère he married Lucile in a secret, midnight ceremony.  Much of the plot is an excuse to poke fun and threaten Valère’s cowardly manservant, Mascarille (a continually frustrated Cameron M. Cronin), in over-the-top ways.

Almost five hundred years ago, Molière, a French playwright, devised this complex and frivolous romantic plot populated by paperdoll-thin but sweetly naïve characters.  Well-known American poet, Richard Wilbur, provides an excellent translation.

The actors go to great lengths to breathe life into a centuries-old text.  Characters speak quickly and in clipped tones with each other and take fantastic pratfalls.  Guerra’s tumbles and cartwheels prove that she’s as flexible as her character’s relationship to gender.  Ascagne and Lucile’s father, Albert (Joey C. Pelletier), is all too happy to chew through scenery as he crawls, climbs, and hugs the stage.

It’s an enormously fun production and exactly the kind of show needed in grim, March weather.  Even the darker thematic elements (Ascagne’s deceit, threats on Mascarille’s life) are handled gently.  Everyone involved with imaginary beasts appears to enjoy themselves in this bright staging and the feeling is infectious.

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