Translated by Stephen Wadsworth
Directed by Timothy Douglas
At Remy Bumppo, Chicago
I Know It’s Over
Changes of the Heart – or, more precisely, La Double Inconstance – is a decidedly odd play. It’s basically Marivaux staging a Moliere-style comedy and throwing in a Commedia del’Arte character to see what would happen. Which yields interesting results. Harlequin (a clown character with roots in the insolent slave in Plautus who perhaps reached his intellectual peak as Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will) is possibly the fondest-remembered character of the Commedia, and certainly shakes things up in a largely endearing way in Changes. But that doesn’t stop it from being an exceedingly strange play.
Essentially, a Prince (Steve Wojtas) abducts a beauty from his kingdom, the impressive Silvia (Alana Arenas), in an attempt to woo her; the problem is, she’s promised herself to Harlequin (Nicolas Gamboa) and is loath to break her word for someone whom she thinks she’s never met. However, the prince’s servants and confidants assure him that winning her is possible, with their help, Flaminia (Linda Gillum) chief among them. And that basically sets the stage; Harlequin is allowed to visit his love, and behave as the stock character would (albeit a somewhat advanced version of him). Feasting, drinking, joking and boasting – without the least bit of self-awareness. And, let’s be honest, Gamboa pulls off the character very well. He really inhabits Harlequin, finds the soul of the character, and humanizes him, insofar as that’s possible. He’s a great clown, and commits to the role exceptionally well.
As does every actor on stage. They really commit to their roles. This play is very well-acted. And the physical elements are particularly impressive with Gamboa and Jessica Maynard as Lisette, Flaminia’s sister who wishes for the prince’s hand. And let’s talk about Maynard for a moment: because she’s a young Chicago talent with full command of her functions. She can do a great deal with the least bit of movement, a talent she demonstrated excellently in the silent roll of The Boxer. She’s only gotten better. There’s another kid, Jake Szczepaniak (no joke), who’s in a completely fabricated role. He’s a servant who’s not in the script, who basically bookends each act with a lip-sync to time-appropriate music (which is the 1960s – I’ll get to that in a second). I’ll be honest, it’s a strange roll, and a strange decision, directorially. That said, whatever else, the kid freaking commits. And he delivers like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I’m unsure whether the idea of his character worked (the consensus is probably “no”) but that reflects upon him not at all, because he took what he was given and did every last thing he could with it. And I respect the hell out of him for that. Right down to the jaw-wavering vibrato.
And that’s sort of the story with this production. The actors commit wonderfully to direction that’s sort of half-baked. Director Timothy Douglas (who’s Remy Bumppo’s artistic director starting this season) has set this play in 1960s Chicago as a sort of parable of dating outside your class. The Prince is wealthy, cocksure, a downtown-living kind of guy; Silvia is from the South Side, African-American and poor. The problem is, you wouldn’t really know that unless you read the program notes. Yes, you’d figure out it was the 60s – the music and the costumes (designed excellently by Lena Sands) would clue you in. But it seemed like Douglas was afraid to go whole-hog on his decisions of time and place. Yes, it’s the 1960s; yes, it’s Chicago. But the consequences of racial strife are more evident in the program than on stage. Douglas did not emphasize the class and racial differences enough. Silvia was undoubtedly a strong, black woman; but she was a strong woman first. The racial undercurrents Douglas wanted to emphasize did not come through. Part of me wishes she’d been portrayed as a Black Panther – because what stronger symbol of Black Power in America is there, except for maybe the fact that an African-American is now our President? (And I like to think this is more than my fondness for the Panthers speaking.) It’s definitely relevant to the era. But Douglas didn’t want to deal with the harshness and contentiousness that would have resulted in such a decision. At least, that’s how I feel. He wanted his notes to stand in for the substance on stage. Also, the decision to play Harlequin as a Spaniard was a bit odd. Don’t get me wrong, as I said, I thoroughly enjoyed Gamoa’s performance. But if Silvia is from the South Side – if this is supposed to be an interpretation of a play seen through racially tinted eyes, and Harlequin is from the same village as Silvia – why wasn’t Harlequin black? I had to ask myself – and I’m sorry, but I have to acknowledge this crossing my mind – if a black man playing the feast-gorging, alcohol-loving buffon would be seen as unacceptably racial. Racism has always been a part of America. It did not go away in 2008 and anyone who tries to say otherwise is fooling themselves. So, contextually, why wasn’t the clown black? And Spanish is an odd choice even outside this context: Commedia is distinctly Italian, and this is a French play. So what is a Spaniard doing in the South Side of Chicago?
Another weakness of this production was the translation. It seemed very faithful (having not read the original French: being unable to read French, I am assuming), but it also came off very stiff. Much of the Harlequin’s language was vital and entertaining (which can’t only be the translation and must owe itself as well to Gamboa’s acting); but much of the other dialogue was old-fashioned, leaving me wishing to sweep the cobwebs off of it. Which is to say this: the production Douglas envisioned needed an adaptation, rather than a strict translation. It felt very much like a French parlor comedy rather than a hip, 60s reinvention.
So there are definitely strengths and weaknesses to this production. The acting, I say again, is superb; the costumes and set very well done – technically, all around, it’s very much up to Remy Bumppo’s standard. But Timothy Douglas did not pursue his vision as tenaciously as one would like. It left the play feeling stodgy and odd and, admittedly, long. It could have stood some substantial cutting (2:45 with two intermissions left one slightly exhausted). With clever cutting and greater commitment to vision, this could have been an exceptional production and something everyone should see; as it is, it is a very well-acted novelty, fine for what it is, but disappointing on the whole. Mainly because it could have been so much more.
Reviewed on 11.28
For full show information, visit TheatreInChicago.
At the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Avenue Chicago; call 773-404-7336 or visit www.remybumppo.org; tickets $30-50; performances Wed.-Sat. at 7:30 and Sun. at 2:30, as well as others; running time 2:45; through Jan. 8, 2012.