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A CurtainUp Review
Phantom Lady
David Lohrey
Accept me as something enigmatic, for I am not what I appear to be.
---Dona Angela
Celeste Ciulla & Ray Virta (Photo: Tom Bloom)
The Pearl Theatre Company has its act together. Its production this fall of Euripides' Iphegenia at Aulis deserved praise, because of its unpretentious, respectful treatment of a rarely seen classic. As solid a production as that was, The Pearl's current production of Calderon's The Phantom Lady is even more impressive. Directed by Rene Buch, founder of Repertorio Espanol, this production of the Spanish master's sly comedy boasts strong performances. While many theatergoers will have seen Calderon's well-known masterpiece Life Is a Dream, it is a treat to be introduced to this deceptively light confection by such an accomplished theatre company.

As lighthearted as it may be, The Phantom Lady is not lightweight. Calderon tells the story of Don Manuel's entrapment at the hands of the frustrated Dona Angela, an attractive widow in mourning. While adhering to the conventions of Spanish 17th century comedy, the playwright succeeds in undermining oppressive social conventions related to the inequality of the sexes. Dona Angela's two over-protective brothers, Don Juan and Don Luis, forbid her any male companionship that might bring dishonor on the family. To ensure her isolation and protection, the brothers have constructed a wing so that houseguests may not gain direct access to the main palace. In order to spy on their guests, they have built a secret mirrored panel that leads into the guest quarters. Dona Angela (Celeste Ciulla) and her servant Isabel (Robin Leslie Brown) know of this secret door and make use of it in their effort to meet the newly arrived Don Manuel (Ray Virta).

Disguised as the phantom lady, Dona Angela visits the guest's chambers. At first her phantom apparel works so well, she succeeds in scaring the guest's servant Cosme (Dominic Cuskern) half to death and in the process arouses the entire household. Eventually, when she and Don Manuel do meet, her identity is revealed, thus jeopardizing their very lives, as her brothers are not kidding around about protecting her honor. Swords are drawn more than once as this farce unfolds. Finally, after identities have been revealed and sacred honor duly protected, a happy ending is assured, as is the custom of such renaissance comedy.

Rene Buch has done a fine job of seeing that the numerous scene changes take place swiftly and with grace. This is all-important in a play such as this where actors scurry about, moving from room to room, at times literally running for their lives. The actors are marvelous. What is key here is arrogance in the men, regal calm in the women. This is no Shakespearean bawd. The cast assembled has the bearing of the Spanish nobility. Dan Daily as Don Juan and Jason Manual Olazabal as Don Luis are especially convincing as the two brothers bent on protecting (and suffocating) their beloved sister. Celeste Ciulla emanates courtly sophistication. She looks every bit the Spanish princess, a real stage beauty. The performances of Dominic Cuskern and Robin Leslie Brown deserve mention: Dominic for his comic turn as Cosme, servant to Don Manuel; and Robin for her captivating performance as Isabel, maid to Dona Angela. Dominic knows precisely how to be funny without hamming it up. Robin, who was born to play Juliet's nurse, has an arresting stage voice and shows tremendous confidence.

The Phantom Lady is a real but ephemeral treat. See it before it disappears.

Written by Pedro Calderon de la Barca.
Translated by Edwin Honig.
Director: Rene Buch.

Cast: Ray Virta, Dominic Cuskern, Celeste Ciulla, Robin Leslie Brown, Jason Manuel Olazabal, Aaron Ganz, Dan Daily, Rachel Botchan, Emily Gray.
Set Design: Sarah Lambert.
Costume Design: Liz Covey.
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli.
Sound Design: Chris Bailey.
Running Time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission
The Pearl Theatre Company, 80 St. Marks Place, New York, (212) 598-9802.
1/21/2001 - 2/17/2002, Tue-Wed at 7pm, Thurs-Sat at 8pm, Wed, Sat, & Sun at 2pm.
Reviewed by David Lohrey based on performance of 1/23/02.
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