Today -- especially in the wake of acclaimed recent productions at New York's Classic Stage Company and the U.K.'s National Theatre -- it's easy to mock the prudish critics of yore for expressing shock at Marivaux's depiction of a female character as apparently unfeminine as the one at the center of The False Servant. After all, it's hardly as if the playwright invented the concept of cross-dressing onstage, and female-to-male disguise pops up elsewhere in his comedies -- in The Triumph of Love, for instance. Yet having made several aborted attempts over the past couple of days to articulate my feelings about Abydos Theater's new production (including a version that rambled on for some 500 words before I abandoned it in disgust), I am beginning to understand why commentators routinely condemned this comedy: It's just damn hard to write about.
The first challenge is to describe the plot. The story revolves around one Chevalier, who, despite the masculine title and pair of britches to match, is in fact a beautiful, rich, and wily young woman, cunningly disguised as a handsome knight. When Chevalier accidentally spots Lelio, the man she has been told by her family she's to marry, cavorting with a countess at a masked ball, the crafty cross-dresser decides to spy on the lovebirds at the countess' country estate. In drag and accompanied by an oddball valet, Trevelin (whom Chevalier has been forced to hire in the temporary absence of her trusted servant Frontin -- but that's another story), our heroine soon confirms her worst suspicions about her two-faced, money-grubbing suitor.
Driven in equal measures by a spirit of adventure and a desire to get even, Chevalier then attempts to woo the countess for herself and dupe Lelio out of his cash. Somewhere along the way, Chevalier accidentally reveals her gender. But rather than admit defeat, she prolongs the game by posing as her own servant. Meanwhile, the equally scheming Trevelin, together with Lelio's lascivious lackey Arlequin, threatens to disrupt Chevalier's plans through a mixture of obtuseness and guile. So far, so good.
Next -- and here's where things get really dicey -- comes the business of figuring out what's really going on behind the playfulness of Marivaux's perfumed dialogue and gender-bending games. It's not for nothing that the term Marivaudage was coined to describe the playwright's famed technique for disguising social commentary beneath flirtatious banter. In their feather-tickling adaptation/translation/update of The False Servant for Abydos, Ann and George Crowe go even further than Marivaux. For example, instead of revealing the true identity of Chevalier to Trevelin at the start of the play, as Marivaux does, the adapters teasingly maintain the suspense. The Crowes play up the ambivalence of all the characters, presenting us with a bunch of disingenuous souls so adept at hiding their true intentions behind masks of coquettish behavior that understanding them would require doing more than wiping off the makeup; you'd have to hold them at gunpoint.
As a result, we never find out whether Chevalier really falls for the countess, whether Arlequin is as stupid as he looks, whether love and stupidity are just fronts these characters put on to get what they want. The play, especially as conveyed in director Jessica Heidt's giddy-graceful version, leaves all of these questions tantalizingly (and maddeningly) open to interpretation. Events at the end of The False Servant remain curiously unresolved, sexuality is persistently ambiguous, and though we exit the theater with the impression that we've experienced something quite brilliant, we're hard-pressed to describe what that something was.
But press hard I must. What I can say with certainty is that the cleverness of this production lies precisely in Heidt's celebration of the play's fundamental impenetrability. Rather than try to mine the characters and events for any fixed meaning, the director delights in the shifting landscape presented by Marivaux in all its surreal beauty.
The whole thing feels a bit like a Marx Brothers movie -- both in terms of the goofy physicality (which borrows many techniques from early cinema and the commedia dell'arte tradition; indeed, some of the characters, such as Arlequin and the countess, are stock commedia figures) and the slapstick humor riddled with double-entendres. Characters are pared down to their essential selves, but the complexity of the dialogue and the elasticity of their intentions turn them into works of abstract art. For example, Joseph Estlack's fascinating Trevelin is a bug-eyed, bowler hat-wearing innocent who carries an inhaler in the pocket of his threadbare suit. He looks like a cartoon version of Chaplin's Little Tramp, only he's twice as devious. As the dastardly Lelio, Jonathan Leveck leaves an impression like a malfunctioning clockwork toy, with his physical tics and affectations. The cast scatters the lighthearted locutions of the Crowes' prose like confetti, pronouncing words like "monsieur" as "MISS-yer" to heighten the gender-bending comic effect. And the wooing scenes, tinged with ulterior motive, bring to mind Groucho wiggling his eyebrows at Margaret Dumont.
If any single feature of this production could sum up the things-don't-quite-add-up spirit of The False Servant, it's Elizabeth Langley's design. The press release explains that the set -- three simple lengths of red, green, and blue chiffon that tumble to the floor from the ceiling -- was inspired by the surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp's Rotary Demisphere. Duchamp's sculpture, a motorized wooden contraption on a metal stand, looks like an old-fashioned standing fan, and doesn't in the least bit resemble Langley's set. But that's what makes it such a perfect metaphor for the play. Just like this machine, which Duchamp built to create the effect of spirals spinning simultaneously in opposite directions, Marivaux's comedy is an optical illusion on a grand scale.