Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Review
The Libertine by Stephen Jeffreys tells the story of John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester (1647-80) whose flamboyant escapades earned him the nickname, "the profane Earl" and caused his banishment from Charles II's court at least once a year. His offenses ranged from kidnaping an heiress whom he later married, smashing of the king's favorite sundial, drunkenness and lechery. In an age of sinfulness he gained the reputation of being one of its greatest sinners. It so happened that the bewigged and rakish Earl was also a daring wit and poet who could, had he not felt it "beneath him," have been one of his era's outstanding playwrights.
Jeffrey's play weaves together the best documented threads of Rochester's life into a tale that includes assorted cohorts, King Charles (also no stranger to sexual adventuring), as well as the two most important women in his life -- the kidnaped heiress who became his wife and the famous actress Elizabeth Barry who was his major passion. It's an often funny, ultimately sad and intriguing tale that catches in its satiric net Rochester's self-indulgence, restlessness and inner despair.
In the best of all possible worlds a New York premiere of this drama commissioned and performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1994 would be handsomely mounted in a major theater. It would also have a star to play the Earl as did the 1996 production at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago which starred John Malkovitch. The Roundabout with it ability to draw well-known actors would seem ideal. On a more modest scale, there's the Pearl Theater which, besides mounting a successful adaptation of Hard Times (also by Stephen Jeffreys) has a subscriber base with a bent for Restoration plays such as last year's Venice Preserved, currently The School For Scandal(See links at end for CurtainUp reviews). Instead The Libertine has opened in the tiny Theatre Row Theatre under the auspices of the HartsHorn Theatre Company which deserves Brownie points for its courage in tackling a play about historic figures, who are hardly household words to American audiences unfamiliar with the Restoration, and with the main character played by an actor whose bio notes are shorter than any of his colleagues in the cast.
So, how does this ambitious enterprise come off in a small, bare-bones stage setting? If you'll forgive the oxymoron: imperfectly good.
The evening's strong suit is embodied in Douglas A. Huszti's set design which uses two ugly but highly utiliarian drapes to transport us from scene to scene. A scene in which some half dozen characters engaged in various sexual acts are silhouetted against one of the paperbag-colored drapes is the evening's most theatrically effective highlight.
Other assets include a generously sized cast (12 actors) imaginatively directed by Stephen Hollis to utilize the aisles as well as the stage. As the Earl, Mark Vietor whose resume states only that he's an acting school graduate, delivers his lines with clarity and considerable passion. However, he fails to capture the duality of his character. He succeeds in depicting the man who's "up for it all the time" and who prides himself on being a "malicious planet." He is less successful at getting in touch with Rochester's inner demons "and in letting us see just why "what is in my mind is always more interesting than what goes on outside." Perhaps the "real" Rochester is best summed up in act two when a portrait artist (Jeff Woodman) explains that "he is the only one of all the bewigged I painted who was aware of his own absurdity." The double casting of Woodman as the artist and also playwright George Etherege is an interesting commentary on the fact that Rochester was the subject of one man's brush and the other's pen.
The performances that most vividly stand out from the ensemble are those of the two leading female characters. Carrie Preston, last seen as a boyish Octavius Caesar in the Public Theater production of Antony and Cleopatra (see links at end of this review) is very effective as the seductive Elizabeth Barry who under Rochester's tutelage became one of the Restoration's leading actresses. Tod Randolph as Rochester's country wife who yearns to save him from himself and for herself is outstanding though she doesn't have enough scenes to demonstrate the power I've seen her display in her many roles at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Mass. Her final and most emotional scene is unfortunately not one of the play's best. Also worth a separate mention is Ritchie Coster as Tom Alcock a poker-faced serving man who got some of the evening's loudest laughs and, in one instance, even applause.
The imperfect elements of this production center on a sense that a lot of material is put forth in a great and at times confusing rush and yet in the second act seems to slow down and lose any momentum built up at the beginning. It makes for a somewhat careless impression that's underscored by a program that should have included at least some background notes on the era and the characters depicted -- at minimum, the play's dates (1675-76) and the actual settings of the various scenes. It's a sort of reversal of a comedy show I reviewed recently which assumed too little intelligence on the part of the audience and therefore relied on scatological linguistic cues ( See link--Black Humor). In this case, the company assumed the audience knew as much as it did or was too lazy to provide background to inform or refresh the memory
LINKS TO PLAYS MENTIONED: Hard Times. . .Venice Preserved. . .School for Scandal. . .Antony and Cleopatra. . .Black Humor.