In a speech as rallying as Henry V’s on St. Crispin’s Day, Berowne argues that “love, first learned in a lady’s eyes,” nourishes not just the brain but all the senses and indeed the world. By the time he’s fired his way through this heady rationalization, in which women “are the books, the arts, the academes,” love has trumped a PhD. Except for an autumnal twist (nicely foreshadowed here by a tall, climbable tree shimmering green and gold), all might be well that ends well. But even if the play concluded with the multiple marriages that tie up most classic comedies, you’d be left with the nagging suspicion that the lads of LLL were more caught up in their own sighing and sonnetizing than in their dismissive sweethearts with the mirror eyes.
Elsewhere in the play, the Bard riffs on themes of pretense and lust through more countrified (or otherwise ridiculous) characters, some of whose more arcane interlocutions have here been washed away with the then-topical allusions. The comedy that remains is sharply performed, often with a music-hall panache, particularly by LeBow as the deliciously oleaginous, parading Don Adriano and Jeremy Beck done up like Little Lord Fauntleroy as his precocious performing seal of a page. The production even comes with its own tuxedo’d accompanist, Robert Mollicone, who’s seated at a grand piano to one side before the stage. And composer Michael Friedman sets Shakespeare’s concluding songs evoking spring and winter to a ragtime beat that segues from jaunty to melancholy, just like the play.
“Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the biggest queen of all?” barks the curtain-call number of American Repertory Theatre’s Island of Slaves (at the Loeb Drama Center through June 11). And that is the question of the evening, whether you’re talking drag or divine right. Pierre Marivaux’s play — or more accurately, his scenario written for an Italian commedia troupe in Paris — hails from 1725 and has to do with the brutal relations of masters and servants. A male and female pair of each is shipwrecked on an island operated as a democracy by runaway slaves, and they’re forced to trade roles for purposes of retraining. ART artistic director Robert Woodruff has come up with the brilliant idea of replacing the islanders, unconventionally liberated for their time, with a quintet of in-your-face drag queens milling about a down-at-heels lounge called Utopia. But the real setting of this provocative and highly theatrical work is the theater itself — as we learn at the get-go when treated to video of Karen MacDonald’s Euphrosine, done up in full 18th-century frippery and followed by tired maid Cléanthis, mincing up Brattle Street and into the Loeb lobby before the two burst in person into the arena playing space, a sort of nightclub patio decorated with cheap, upturned lawn chairs and at least one discarded condom.
ISLAND OF SLAVES: Avant-garde ART retooling that works.
I know, I know, it sounds like so much avant-garde ART retooling. But the metaphor of the drag queens works, as does their vampy, empowered lip-synching to loud disco. (Except when they force themselves on the audience.) And reacting to the screed-like denunciations and role-reversal humiliations of the script with things like “Not today, baby,” they are funny. Moreover, Woodruff knows when to get them out of the way, relegating them to a seedy green room at the back when the play needs to bite in a different way. Bite it does. Marivaux’s hypothetical experiment in social engineering results in some real theater of cruelty, and we feel the pain. And not just when something flashy happens, as when MacDonald’s shamed aristo is stripped to her slip, smothered in a piggy mask, and spun on a wheel while being spray-painted by the imposing drag queens. Almost more awful is the discovery that the servants turned master and mistress, after a failed, stiff attempt to romance each other, really lust for the actual masters. Which suggests that a slave mentality is something it may take generations, rather than some sadistic role reversal, to displace.