The Game of Love and Chance is the kind of classic that we see far too little of from the so-called classical theatres in these parts.
When it comes to the treasure chest of theatre that came before Henrik Ibsen, Southern Ontario sees plenty of Shakespeare, a pinch of Molière and the occasional Greek, but leaves the rest buried.
Matthew Jocelyn's stylish and stylized production of Marivaux's 1730 farce then is a treat by its very existence. Beautifully designed like a jewellery box with hidden compartments by Quebec's Anick La Bissonière, it features sparkling, gem-like performances from its female leads.
The initial joys of this modern-dress production, however, gradually wear off as the performers exhaust themselves with overexuberant gymnastic routines – though the show gets a second wind as it heads into its denouement.
Trish Lindstrom and Gemma James-Smith stand out as Silvia and Lisette, mistress and maid in a high-bourgeois Paris household.
Monsieur Orgon (William Webster) has arranged for his daughter Silvia to be married to the son of a friend, Dorante (Harry Judge). As a progressive parent, however, he insists that Silvia must consent to the match first.
Worried that Dorante might put on a mask for her during their first and only prenuptial meeting, Silvia decides to secretly switch places with Lisette in order to observe her future husband from a cool distance. "Are not all men, especially intelligent men, all hypocrites?" she asks, rhetorically, to a baffled and blushing Lisette. (Not even a flock of lambs does sheepish as well as James-Smith.) As it turns out, Dorante has decided to pull the exact same trick on his visit to Silvia. He arrives dressed as a valet, while his gruff servant Bourgignon (Gil Garratt) disguises himself as his master.
Orgon and his swish, Twix-nibbling son Mario (Zach Fraser) are the only two who know of both these switcheroos, and they observe the tangled courtships with amusement – occasionally intervening to wind up the farce even tighter.
There's been a surprising spate of productions of The Game of Love and Chance lately – Halifax's Neptune Theatre staged it, and an outdoor production comes to Ottawa this summer. Indeed, there's something quite modern about the sensibility of this play, the witty superficiality of 18th-century bourgeois French ballrooms not being all that far off from carefully crafted personas put forth on dating websites like Plenty of Fish today.
This co-production between Toronto's Canadian Stage and Montreal's Centaur Theatre begins with a wonderful dance of wits between Silvia and Lisette in a long corridor with doors at either end. The idea that Canadian Stage is trying to win back some of the patrons who have slipped over to Soulpepper's turf in the past decade is accentuated by the presence of that company's co-founder Webster, going big and giving one of his better performances of late as Monsieur Orgon.
When the young men arrive and the set opens up into a hall of mirrors, the production begins to wobble, however. Harry Judge has a winning, boyish charisma as the disguised Dorante, but he doesn't quite open up to the audience enough.
Gil Garratt as Bourgignon makes a thrilling and hilarious entrance, flinging himself forward through a set of doors and then catching himself with the handles before he falls on his face. Wrapped in a purple-accented fox stole, he looks like a defaced figurehead on the prow of a ship.
But Garratt's continual exertions ultimately undermine his performance. He performs splits and leaps with admirable gusto, but little finesse.
Indeed, strenuously choreographed by Catherine Tardif, Jocelyn's production often comes across as a game of love and Twister during its middle stretch. There's an homage to the commedia dell'arte troupe that premiered the play here, but the laughter comes easier in the more restrained moments.
The Game of Love and Chance
Written by Marivaux
Translated by Nicolas Billon
Directed by Matthew Jocelyn
Starring Trish Lindstrom and Harry Judge
At the St Lawrence Centre in Toronto
The Game of Love and Chance runs until May 12.