November 8, 2012
Early anthropologists liked to observe what they termed ‘survivals’—so-called ‘primitive’ or less advanced cultures—in an attempt to grasp the fundamentals of what it meant to be human. Decades later, scholars could only shake their heads in wonder at their misbegotten analytical methods.
In Marivaux’s play “The Dispute,” currently in its second and final week of performances in Minor Theatre by the Theatre Department, characters make a similarly unsound attempt to discover one particular element of the human condition: that age-old issue of unfaithfulness.
The play begins with an argument between the Prince (Michael Breslin ’13) and Hermainne (Dewi Caswell ’14) over who was unfaithful first, man or woman. Because this is a comedy (and one need not follow logic if it leads to humor), the Prince’s father not only conveniently ran into the same gendered argument, but was also riled up enough to arrange the perfect experiment to learn the truth once and for all.
We learn that 19 years before the opening of the play, the Prince’s father set aside four orphans—two boys and two girls—to be raised in their own private Edens, knowing no one other than their mysterious caretakers Mesrou (Torian Pope ’14) and Carise (Alex Dorer ’13). Sitting comfortably in the seats with the rest of the audience, the Prince and Hermianne watch as the four orphans are released into the tent to romantically duke it out - the most awkward of gladiatorial entertainments.
You would be right to call this set-up tricky on even the loosest of ethical grounds. In a post-Milgram, post-Truman Show kind of world, this experiment is definitely not kosher. But written as it is (a light comedy of the early 18th-century), concerns on the level of human experimentation are cast aside for an exploration of the pathos (and humor) of love and language, which are so inextricably intertwined throughout Gideon Lester’s translation.
Unsurprisingly, the four unwieldy youths divide quickly into two couples: Églé and Azor (Kyra Jackson ’14 and Brian Evans ’15, respectively) and Adine and Mesrin (Wynn Van Dusen ’15 and Josh Bridge ’14). As far as acting chops go, these four parts ask for little more than doe-eyed innocence. However, there is a lot of doe-eyed innocence to be dealt with here—more than an hour of it—so consistency becomes key. The four actors jump through that hoop admirably, reining each emotion in to a level of childlike simplicity. And though the women are fine, the real scene-stealers are the men, who have in a scene so rife with homosexual tension and sexual confusion that I would feel guilty to spoil any part of it.
Given that the parts are all played by college students, one cannot help but start to see the interaction within this neat little Eden as a microcosm of the Hill - these two couples as stand-ins for the average Hamilton student. In that sense, the play hits all the right notes: sexual tension, (sexual) innocence, bro-love, and even a scene with a mirror that cleverly alludes to the now-universal practice of taking ‘selfies.’
The play, however, has the lurching tendency to sway from open hilarity to mock seriousness that renders it difficult for the actors to keep up the humor the whole time.
The high points of the play, peppered with lines of remarkable (and, therefore, hilarious) naivete—“Love is my life!” or “I have won the admiration of the only three people in the world!”—crackle with joyful absurdity. The low points creak along with an attitude not so much of boredom as joyless efficiency at building the tension to the next big laugh.
Overshadowing the acting (and perhaps the play itself) is the scene itself. As always, the set in Minor is a marvel. Set designer, Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre Andrew Holland, has constructed an enormous white tent inside the theater space itself to house the main action of the play. The inside of the tent also features an Astroturf lawn and a stream that quite literally cuts a path from one side of the theater to the other. As is usual, the set literally swims with potential meanings and allusions; to single out one or two of them would be to ignore dozens of others.
The toughest part of the play to pin down is the opening prologue, which is traditionally included in most productions. Taking place in the lobby and the adjacent stairwells of Minor Theatre, it is a little much to digest in relation to the play that follows. There is a whole lot of running up and down and song-singing and poetry-reading and gesture-making. Even if parts of it were lovely in their own odd way—an a capella rendition of the Arlen/Mercer tune “Blues in the Night” is especially wonderful—the prologue hits us with too much at once.
So while some parts of the play fall somewhat flat, there is still a whole world of detail in this production to latch onto. Notice the little things. Watch Breslin’s face as the Prince sits in the audience; towards the end of the play, as the experiment (sort of) sways in his direction, he breaks out into anticipatory smiling. Watch the stream wend its way across the stage. Look for the tiny adjustments in dress on the four central players. Think about the blank, black passivity of Minor Theatre outside of the brightly-lit white tent. Think how—even in the smallest, seemingly well-controlled worlds—there is chaos, confusion and the very good possibility that the eyes on the outside have no idea how to run a good experiment.