La Dispute at Hartford Stage -- A Puzzling But Interesting Choice

By Bob and Karen Isaacs

Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak decided to open Hartford Stage’s 50th anniversary season with two productions using the same casts and running in repertory. This reminds us that in the beginning of Hartford Stage and the other regional theaters in Connecticut using an ensemble of actors throughout the season was the norm. We grew to know actors as we saw them during the course of a season or more in a variety of roles from supporting characters to starring.

The two plays he chose were Marivaux’s La Dispute, a play that is seldom produced and Shakespeare’s MacBeth, which seems to be showing up everywhere this season.

No one can argue with the selection of MacBeth which will open next week, but La Dispute is definitely a puzzling choice. Marivaux is certainly a playwright that deserves productions. He chronologically followed Moliere, living and working in 18th century France. He produced a number of witty and interesting comedies. But La Dispute, which was written in the later part of his career, has never been mentioned as one of his best works. In addition it is very brief, running in this production, just 70 minutes.

A prince and the noblewoman he loves are arguing over whether men or women are more likely to be unfaithful in love: he claims the woman is; she the man. So how to prove it? Drawing on the ideas of the Enlightenment, you can think of Rousseau’s novel Emile, the answer is to set up an experiment. The prince just happened to have one already in progress. Two boy and two girl babies were raised, each in isolation, never seeing another individual except their elderly caretakers. Now as teens, the prince proposes to let them meet each other and see what happens.

You may not be surprised to learn that each girl thinks she is enchanting (obviously they had been kept from mirrors) and immediately is attracted to the first young man she meets. But then the complications arise. Let us say that perhaps because Marivaux is a man, the prince’s point of view turns out to be the correct one -- not only are the young women more fickle, but they seem to be so for reasons of spite and jealousy rather than affection.

The production directed by Tresnjak features a beautiful, pure white set by Jedediah Ike and costumes by Joshua Pearson. The four subjects of the experiment are played winningly by Kaliswa Brewster, David Manis, Jeffrey Omura and Mahira Kakkar. Grant Goodman is the prince and Kate MacCluggage is the lady with whom he is debating; each of these roles is quite small despite their physical presence throughout the show.

Yet, even though La Dispute is brief, it can seem tedious. At times you feel as though you are listening to a lecture between the prince and his lady. With the two young couples, the dialogue seems repetitious and lacks real humor. Even at just 70 minutes, there were times I was checking my watch.

This is still a play worth seeing. It demonstrates so clearly the influence the Enlightenment had on theater and literature of the period, and is reflective of the debate about nature vs. nurture. It also lets most audiences see a work by this well known yet mostly unproduced playwright. You will certainly have a lot to discuss on the way home.

La Dispute is at the Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church St, Hartford, running in repertory with MacBeth through Nov. 10. For tickets and information, call the box office at 860-527-5151 or visit www.HartfordStage.org.

This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers Oct. 2, 2013 and online at Zip06.com.


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