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"THIS IS A little play of puppets...everything happens in it that could never happen, its personages are not real men and women, nor the shadows of them, but dolls or marionettes of paste and cardboard, moving upon wires which are visible even in a little light and to the dimmest eye," Jacinto Benavente says in the prologue to his play The Bonds of Interest. And certainly real people could never be as funny as they were last night in director Paul Cooper's adaptation of the play. Cooper's assemblage of cheaters, misers, scheming ladies, and boisterous servants--especially in the second act--gives you much more to watch than you could ever take in. You often miss good lines, but on the whole it doesn't matter; there are lots of others. Cooper has conserved all the sharpness and wit of Benavente's script, adding some delightful touches of his own.
But it is Randy Darwell's set that makes the play even before the first note of the prelude--the Beatles' "Penny Lane"--is sounded. The floor, whose dullest color is a flaming chartreuse, said "festival" right off. Near a balcony projects a lovely pole, with feathers atop, that the actors use for quick descents. The rest is a complicated arrangement of stairs and levels over which the cast runs riot.
Cooper's puppets perform with great gusto, but in a commedia dell'arte the stage should be filled with action. Too often the stage is held by just two people--essentially a fault of Benavente's play, but a few extras cleverly slipped in would have helped a great deal. Still, in the second act revelry breaks out as the entire cast shows itself for a switching, twisting, joyous denouement.
TIM CARDEN, however, holds the stage and more right from the beginning. It's a pity he wasn't born five hundred years ago: he would have made some king a superb court jester. Not only is he madly ridiculous in his quivering intensity as the mad poet, he is incredibly coordinated as he juggles--with three balls, mind you--or somersaults or tweaks noses with a paddle-ball. He and his comrade the Captain (Michael Farrell) are rescued from hunger by Leander (George Sheanshang) and Crispin (Warren Motley), who have established credit with the Innkeeper (Richard Anderson) by means of fancy clothes and fancy talk. Motley is a sleek, clever confidence man, putting it over on everybody, even his friend Leander, who in the end turns against his sneaky wiles. Leander, the ostensible hero, is altogether a mediocre guy; he manages to fall truly in love with equally dull Silvia (Demetra Striggles), who luckily stands to inherit an enormous fortune from her fractious father (Tony Maier). Dona Sirena the matchmaker (Lucy Raudenbush), a magnificent grande dame whose social position is somewhat frayed for lack of funds, turns a blind, pragmatic eye to the goings-on of her niece Columbine (Anne Pederson). Miss Pederson's voice is sometimes weak, but she plays a very hot little piece.
This impact of this production depends mostly on the business; the lines are all there, but like Shaw (Bonds was first produced in 1907), Benavente has lost some of his iconoclastic punch over the years. It is no longer shocking to talk of a matchmaker who makes matches for money, but it is still extremely funny to portray her. The swashbuckling Captain, always bursting into snatches of Italian opera and clapping his friend Harlequin on the back, makes you nostalgic for the good old days when the army was never a sick joke but a funny one.
In fact, it makes you nostalgic for the good old days altogether. Much too much theatre is becoming intellectualized drama and philosophical questioning. Pure theatre, a sparkling, whirlwind experience that means little off the stager, is as wonderful--and as needed--as Spring vacation
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