A new adaptation of Marivaux's La Dispute, an 18th century French confection of a play, is running in repertory with Macbeth at Hartford Stage Company. Both are directed by Darko Tresnjak, and the resident company of actors have the great good fun of playing very different roles in each show. Both plays investigate human nature, and as a species we don't end up looking pretty in either — though the actors in La Dispute are quite fetching. Macbeth is a treatise on ambition as a trigger for violence that escalates into the destruction of individual and social sanity. La Dispute takes up questions regarding infidelity in love. Too slight a play to stand alone, in my view, it does provide an effective foil to Shakespeare's great tragedy.
The premise of La Dispute is this: 18 years ago, the Prince's father began a social experiment. He isolated four infants, two of each sex, in four small Gardens of Eden, each to be raised alone by a pair of servants. The play opens on the day these young innocents are first allowed to see their counterparts. The Prince and his paramour — decked out in the extreme, ludicrous elegance of the upper classes of the time — watch the proceedings, unseen from above, with an eye to settling an argument they've had: who was unfaithful first, man or woman? Love, lust and partner-swapping are not far behind.
The young actors are vivacious, passionate and beautiful. Decked out in matching all-white costumes, the men tumble and the women squabble and therein lies part of my trouble with this play. Marivaux posits that two young women brought together will automatically channel the worst of middle-school girl behavior and instantly morph into competitive bitches, while two young men brought together will take a liking to each other and start affectionately roughhousing. Sigh. I don't imagine it can be performed any better than it is here, but it's still ridiculous at best and offensive at worst.
Certain words are humorously redefined by the actors' actions: watch for the new meaning of "charms" and "joy," for instance. "Put your joy away" provoked big laughs.
For me, the pleasure of watching a company of actors I'd seen do tragedy take up such wildly different roles makes going to consume this éclair worth it. There's a great deal of skill in this production, in design, direction, and performance. It's the oversimplifications in the parable nature of this play that leave me irritated. Perhaps that's the intent.
La Dispute by Marivaux
In rotation with Macbeth through Nov. 10, Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, (860) 527-5151, hartfordstage.org