june 2017 | Volume 156
THE GAME OF LOVE AND CHANCE
by Pierre de Marivaux, trans. Nicolas Billon
Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery St.
www.unitedplayers.com or 604-224-8007 ext. 2
The Game of Love and Chance is a French comedy, written in 1730 in Italian commedia style, based on the Roman comedies of Terence and Plautus that Shakespeare liked so much. It’s a play of mistaken identities, where master and mistress change places with their servants and everyone woos each other at cross-purposes. Because this is 18th century neoclassical comedy, all the rough edges have been taken off the characters and plot. There is no villain, everyone is basically good and good-natured—although foolish—and nothing really stands in the way of the comic happy ending.
The premise is clever and the complications can generate some funny moments. But it’s not a play that has aged well. And the translation/adaptation by Nicolas Billon used by Brian Parkinson in this United Players production feels stilted and awkwardly artificial. The dialogue doesn’t have the comic music of those Molière translations where characters speak in rhymed verse. Here, everyone sounds like they’re speaking in translation. And the formality of the diction and delivery feels rooted in the 18th century, despite the production’s setting in 1920s Quebec (so the program tells us; Sandy Margaret’s drawing room set has a nice art deco look, but nothing in the show suggests Quebec).
We’re at the estate of Orgon (Peter Robbins), who has arranged a marriage for his daughter Sylvia (Elizabeth Willow) with a man she’s never met. That man, Dorante (Callum Gunn), will be visiting, and Sylvia asks her father if she could switch roles with her maid, Lisette (Rebecca Husain), to observe Dorante’s behavior before committing to him. Good liberal Orgon agrees, saying he’d never force his daughter to marry a man she couldn’t love.
Meanwhile, Orgon receives a letter from Dorante’s father revealing that Dorante is, coincidentally, also switching identities with his valet, Arlequino (Matt Loop), for the same reason. Orgon keeps this information from Sylvia but shares it with his son Mario (Simon Garez). So Orgon and Mario know what the audience knows but none of the other characters does. They observe the action from behind half-closed doors with ironic chuckles and guffaws.
Typically for this kind of comedy, the servants get to be the genuinely funny characters. Husain plays Lisette with broad comic strokes and is quite charming. Arlequino, as his name indicates, is Harlequin, the clown of commedia dell’arte. Loop makes him pay off on his first entrance as the faux Dorante with a great pratfall, and gives him the pompous pretentions that infuriate his master and attract Lisette in her guise as Sylvia.
The wooing of the real Sylvia and Dorante, each thinking the other is a servant, is more formal and less funny. Dorante is smitten with Sylvia at first sight, and Gunn plays him with sympathetic sincerity. Sylvia, though, is an aristocratic snob (servants, for her, are “insolent”), and I found it hard to generate much enthusiasm for her or for their match.
One of the many reasons to admire United Players is the company’s reaching beyond the bounds of most Vancouver theatre companies, and especially community theatres, to challenging plays outside the usual repertoire. Since the demise of the Playhouse, and more recently Blackbird Theatre, who but United Players is likely to revive an 18th century comedy? As admirable as the idea may be, sometimes it’s better to just let sleeping plays lie.
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