The Folger Theater's production of "Marriage a la Mode" offers further evidence that opposites attract. While John Dryden's play sets the heroic against the comic, the production puts a Scottish director in charge of Yankee actors.
Seldom has such a double clash worked to better advantage: This is a show of cunning ideas gracefully brought to life.
The visiting Giles Havergal, director of the distinguished Citizens' Theater of Glasgow, has performed major surgery on the 17th-century play -- which he did first for his own company in 1981.
Dryden wrote it as a "marriage" of bawdy comedy and heroic romance. Havergal has kept the comedy but replaced the romance with scenes from "All for Love," Dryden's masterful, moving treatment of Antony and Cleopatra. The polarized result is a play within a play, as philandering, flirting actors rehearse a drama of tragic love.
Though choreographed down to the last dregs of wine, the show runneth over with liveliness -- also warmth and wit. The Folger's resident acting company, joined by deft outsiders, is in crackling-good form for this theatrical double entendre.
Such dependable performers as Mikel Lambert and Mario Arrambide really shine, as do guest actors Sherry Skinker and, more often than not, Briain Petchey. The foursome is the focus of "an odd kind of game . . . where each of us plays for double stakes," as Arrambide, portraying the soldier Palamede, finally decides.
He visits the theater -- with the stage and cluttered "behind-scenes" well designed by Hugh Lester -- to claim the bride his father has arranged for him: a social-climbing actress, Melantha, played by Skinker to delightful extremes. During rehearsals, he meets and dallies with Doralice, an actress played by Lambert; Doralice's actor- husband Rudophil, played by Petchey (who was stepping on a few too many lines the other night), meanwhile makes eyes at Melantha.
This tale of lust and infidelity contrasts sharply with the play in rehearsal: Dryden's epic masterpiece of passion and betrayal. Here Rudophil plays Antony, who has forsaken his wife Octavia (Melantha) for the enchantress Cleopatra (Doralice). The irony here is delicious; "All for Love" clearly was an inspired substitution.
In fact, the show opens with the beleaguered Antony, now at war with Caesar, pining away for Cleopatra. Havergal's staging is purposely stiff, the actors negotiating the stage like figurines in a cuckoo clock.
Their elocution is humorously histrionic, with lines like "It is all too true" pronounced to get giggles. Those not "on" chat or play cards, with the stage manager sitting vigil as he munches and guzzles wine. When the scene ends, the stage manager rings his bell, Rudophil says, "I'll treat you all to chocolate," and Melantha coquettishly takes his arm. So the comedy starts.
As matters proceed, with Palamede and Rudophil trying to take Dolatrice and Melantha to bed, the drama of Antony and Cleopatra gathers steam and a measure of seriousness.
Skinker -- the show's most ridiculous character as Melantha -- is also its most dignified as the thrown-over Octavia. What a marvelous game this is. MARRIAGE A LA MODE -- At the Folger through April 17.