Did a man or a woman commit the first infidelity? That’s the question at the heart of French playwright Pierre Marivaux’ 18th-century comedy The Dispute, which is now being given a charming revival by the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO), in a production directed by Jean Randich.
In the play, a prince (Alfredo Narciso) and his lover Hermiane (Jennifer Ikeda) witness the results of a cruel experiment put in motion years earlier by the prince’s father when his parents argued over whether the male or female sex was the more inconstant. Two young men and two young women — raised in isolation since birth, with only two older servants to care for them — are released into a garden. The four young people are supposed innocents. They are first paired off in one configuration, and then introduced to temptation.
The production gets off to a rough start, with a tedious scene between the royal couple that provides all the necessary exposition, but does little else. Both Narciso and Ikeda deliver the kind of mannered performances that give period pieces a bad name. But soon enough, the plot kicks into high gear and the audience is swept away by the vibrant performances of the central quartet.
Jennifer Chang is utterly delightful as the vain, self-absorbed Egle. She perfectly captures the sense of innocence that can inadvertently turn into cruelty, as some of her remarks have a heavier weight than she realizes. Olivia Oguma, as Adine, the other female newly introduced to the outside world, sometimes overplays her character’s petulant qualities, but is still quite funny. Alexis Camins is a joy to watch as the male Azor, who adores Egle with a puppy dog-like affection. Finally, Lanny Joon is hilarious as Mesrin, who is easily swayed by the beauty of the new people he discovers — including Azor, which leads to some unexpected homoerotic overtones in a couple of places.
Performed by an all Asian-American cast, the production sidesteps some of the more problematic racial dynamics within the play that equate whiteness with beauty and blackness with ugliness. The supposedly “black” characters are the servants Carise (Mia Katigbak) and Mesrou (Mel Duane Gionson), who are also older than the play’s primary foursome. Visually, age stands in for racial difference here, which somewhat reduces the sting of certain lines. For example, when Carise tries to convince Egle that the secret to staying in love is to be able to separate from your loved one for periods of time, Egle retorts, “Yes, well I can believe that; that’s probably true for you sort of people, I mean you’re both really black, you must have run a mile when you first saw each other.” (NAATCO utilizes Neil Bartlett’s translation of the play.) Imagine these lines spoken by a white woman to a black couple, and it would be hard to muster any sort of sympathy for the former. And yet the comedy depends upon it.
Sue Rees’ striking black and white set design fittingly includes an apple tree, but the remaining set pieces suggest a children’s playground, complete with swing and jungle gym. Randich and her actors take full advantage of the stage environment to enhance the playfulness of the characters’ interaction, as well as their child-like naiveté.
The darker elements of the play — including the cruelty of conducting such an experiment upon newborn children — are part and parcel of the play’s dynamics, but are not presented heavy-handedly. Curiously, the voyeuristic aspects of the prince and Hermiane watching the four young lovers work out their romantic travails reminded me of certain reality TV programs. As in The Dispute, the behavior that often results from such controlled conditions is not the revelation of some unmediated truth, but the exaggeration of some of our more unpleasant human qualities.