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'La Dispute' delightful, funny side of Hartford Stage repertory program

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"La Dispute" at Hartford Stage

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Repertory is alive and well in Hartford, as evidenced by Hartford Stage's two current productions, William Shakespeare' "Macbeth" and French playwright Marivaux's "La Dispute." Yes, Hartford theatergoers will need to consult the theater's calendar to see what play is being presented on which night, but that's a small amount of effort to devote to catching two very different but rewarding productions that showcase the talents of a number of theater artists, several familiar to local audiences and many others who are new.

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Reviewing the plays in the order in which I saw them, I must admit that I was impressed by Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak's very sweet and deliciously funny production of the Marivaux. Rooted in the traditions of Italy's commedia dell'arte but influenced by Marivaux' French sensibilities, this particular production is an adaptation by Tresnjak and production dramaturg Elizabeth Williamson, based upon a translation by Williamson.

Like many French plays of the Enlightenment, "La Dispute" centers on the always ripe topic of male-female relationships, this one focusing on the question of which member of a couple is more likely to stray from the relationship first. Marivaux introduces us to a Prince and his Lady, Hermianne, who take up this discussion while wandering through the grounds of one of the Prince's countryside estates, with Hermianne saying that the man is most often the first, while the Prince contends that it would always be the woman. To Hermianne's surprise, the Prince reveals that, in order to address that very question, his father many years ago had adopted four infants, two boys and two girls, and raised them secluded from society and from each other. The four were now ready to leave their specialized cocoons and be introduced to the world.

As long as one can suspend disbelief over this plot contrivance, the play becomes an insightful little comedy in which the four young adults meet each other one at a time, with couples forming as each young woman encounters a corresponding male. There is a lot to enjoy with all the swooning resulting from each of the characters discovering the opposite sex along with the pledges of commitment and eternal love shared between the members of each couple.

Marivaux and his contemporary adaptors wryly twist this formula, however, when the two guys first meet and the two women first encounter each other. The two guys immediately form a wickedly funny bromance, complete with chest jumping and wild leaping. The two young woman initially resemble screaming teenage girls as they share likes, dislikes and experiences while pledging their utmost loyalty. However, when each learns that there is an additional member of the opposite sex on the estate, all pre-existing promises are thrown to the wind.

"La Dispute" offers plenty of opportunities for the four young actors at the heart of the play to demonstrate their abilities. And it's clear from the start that they are also having fun creating these initially innocently exuberant babes in the woods encountering others of their same age for the first time while enjoying the fresh fruits of their emerging sexuality. We encounter Kaliswa Brewster's Egle first, dressed in one of costume designer Joshua Pearson's gloriously white outfits, as she expresses her sheer delight in being permitted to explore the world of the estate and then meeting a young man for the first time. He is Jeffrey Omura's Azor, whose early reticence is quickly replaced by a foolhardy attraction. They delightfully convey the first throes of a romance that rapidly and amusingly grows into a pledge of lifetime adoration.

Omura and Phillipe Bowgen, as Mesrin, have a wonderful masculine camaraderie as the young men meet each other for the first time and thrill in their mutual manliness. Bowgen later runs into Mahira Kakkar's more physical and determined Adine, the fourth sheltered individual, and our second couple is formed. All this time, the Prince and Hermianne have been observing these developments from a tree and flower-lined balcony overlooking the estate. As expected, the plot then manages to throw opposite members of each couple together, with predictable results that still surprise in the types of arguments, explanations and excuses that develop.

As directed by Tresnjak, "La Dispute" emerges as vibrantly physical production, with carefully choreographed fights, a lot of lifting and leaping and one hilarious moment that finds both male protagonists crawling somewhat provocatively across the ground. All four of these performers are more than up to the physical and vocal requirements of the parts and their antics are a major contribution to what makes the evening so pleasurable.

Vital help is supplied by Hartford Stage veteran Kate Forbes who plays the wise servant Carise who helped raise each child in secret and allows her initial amusement to turn into concern as she sees this rather notorious game play out. Her wry observations to each of her charges reflect humor tinged with life experience. She is joined by David Manis as her husband and fellow servant Mesrou,who also cared for the children as they grew up and were essentially the only people the four young adults had ever previously encountered. Grant Goodman made for a superior, somewhat pompous Prince and Kate McCluggage, from last year's "Twelfth Night" and the previous year's "Bell, Book and Candle" is appropriately defensive and defiant as the opposing Hermianne. A quartet of actors, Robert Eli, Noble Shropshire, Tom Foran and Jake Lowenthal, play members of the Prince's entourage.

Jedidiah Ike has contributed a set that suggests the lavishness of a princely estate with elegant flourishes that convey the expanse of the property and provide sufficient cover for the observers. Pearson's costumes are suitably extravagant for royal party, easily representative of the time of Louis XV, while the sparkling white outfits for the two sets of lovers are eye-catching and distinctive. Brittany Hartman's wig and hair design are especially essential for this production as is J. David Brimmer's fight choreography, which supports the near constant motion of the piece.

Encountering the humor and brightness of this piece (acknowledgment also to Matthew Richards' lighting) and the brio and enthusiasm of the younger members of the cast piqued this reviewer's curiosity about the subsequent evening's production of "Macbeth." It would be interesting to see a change of pace and atmosphere from sunny France to dark medieval Scotland, as well as see these actors in completely different parts, especially Kate Forbes, who plays Lady Macbeth.

"La Dispute" lasts only a frothy 70 minutes without intermission, but it's a lovely bon-bon of a piece that feels completely fulfilling. The only difficulty is getting over Marivaux's complicated and near preposterous set up (the four children kept apart from all contact all their lives) which may prove problematic for theatergoers unwilling to throw all caution to the wind and approach the production at face value. If you are able to do so, then you'll find a devilishly satisfying production that offers plenty of insights into male-female relationships and, in its unexpected and slightly uncomfortable conclusion, offers the final word on the progress of such relationships.

"La Dispute" plays in repertory with "Macbeth" at Hartford Stage through November 10. For tickets and schedule information, call the Box Office at 860.527.5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org. For those interested in seeing both productions on the same day, check out the Saturday schedules for October 5, October 26 and November 2.

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