18th Century Play Brought to New Life at the ART

An old man and woman decide to conduct an experiment. To decide which sex is least faithful, several men and women are raised in total isolation from everyone but their caretakers—and then let loose in the outdoors. The human subjects eventually pair off and swear undying love to their partners. But there is soon trouble in paradise. When two irrepressibly vain women meet, they cannot help but fight over who is the fairer. And when their lovers finally see other women, everything begins to fall apart.

This is the plot of Pierre Carlet de Chamberlain de Marivaux’s eighteenth century comedy, La Dispute, translated by Resident Dramaturg Gideon Lester and directed by Anne Bogart at the American Repertory Theatre (ART).

A former veteran of the company, Bogart was invited back to Cambridge last year and given her pick of productions for the ART show. When she couldn’t get copyright permissions for her first choice, she settled on La Dispute, which—like all of Marivaux’s plays—deals with the battle of the sexes. In this one, Bogart said, the playwright finally “found the vessel” for everything he hoped to say about eros and civilization.

Like last month’s production of Children of Herakles, the ART’s interpretation La Dispute brings an old play into the modern day. When it premiered in 1744 at the Comédie-Française, La Dispute had only a one-night run; Marivaux has languished in obscurity for some two hundred years since. While critics generally acknowledged the characters’ witty dialogue, they have dismissed Marivaux’s works as light, fluffy and superficial—a perception which Bogart hopes to counteract.

“Marivaux was ahead of his time,” Bogart explains, adding that the premiere of La Dispute was “like heavy metal to [the Parisians].”

Bogart sees La Dispute as essentially pessimistic—a portrait of a world in which free will is mostly an illusion, where people are merely animals “hardwired for mating.”

Bogart conceived the characters of her play as crows and ravens, bird species whose mating rituals are mirrored by those of the human characters in her play.

Bogart’s vision of animalized humans is brought to life onstage. Eglé and Adine, La Dispute’s two female characters, hold an impromptu beauty contest that leads to an opera sing-off and gymnastics competition before the two women degenerate into throwing balls at each other like two stags competing for a mate.

Throughout most of the production, the experiment’s authors watch dispassionately from the sides, while other observers follow the goings-on from a catwalk like birds on a telephone wire. Appropriately, the production notes include excerpts from natural history articles about avian mating habits.

La Dispute is a short play—only 89 minutes in its ART incarnation. To pad the running time, Bogart begins the play with a long visual prologue that includes no speech. She sets it in a hall of mirrors, where people unsucessfully seek to find “sexual and personal fulfillment.”

During the prologue, twenty men and women walk onstage one after another, their steps loud on the copper floor and their shadows dark against the curved walls that loom behind them. As they reach the front of the stage, the actors examine themselves in an imaginary mirror somewhere in the audience, then retreat as they cautiously approach their companions.

Once the whole company is onstage, the music becomes percussive and rock-tinged, the lights turn a lurid yellow, and the cast members flirt tauntingly in dance sequences that are alternately erotic and cruel. Hungered by their exertions, they pause to munch apples, evoking not only a symbol of temptation but also the Edenic state at the center of the story.

Throughout, the actors move in a what Bogart calls a “choreographic” and rather stylized manner, and there are several long periods of silence in which they fight or merely gaze upon their own reflections.

Though the play is allegedly a comedy, the story contains plenty of sadism and bitterness. At La Dispute’s conclusion, the old man vows to have the faithless lovers “dealt with according to my orders.” He is incensed with the woman he had claimed to love at the beginning of the play, but it is she who gets the last word:

“We have no grounds for laughter. Let’s go.”

—La Dispute runs until Feb. 22 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St.

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