A cuckolded husband. A scorned lover. A woman disguised as a man. Sound familiar?
John Strand’s Lovers and Executioners is based on the 17th century French play La Femme Juge et Partie by Antoine Jacob de Montfleury, a contemporary — and rival — of Molière. And though, like me, you’ve probably never heard of Montfleury’s play, you might recognize some of the plot conventions and stock characters of the time. Think Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure or Aphra Behn’s The Rover.
The specifics of this play are these: Bernard has just returned from abandoning his wife, Julie, on a desert island because he thinks she’s been unfaithful. Upon returning to France, Bernard woos the flirtatious Constance, but woe is him when a second suitor — Frederick — endeavors to thwart his lustful advances. Not everything is quite as it seems, and soon we learn that Frederick is actually Julie in disguise.
While the play forces us to wonder who ends up with whom, the real question is whether such a trivial plot can speak to the moral dilemmas of marital infidelity and murder. Can real questions of justice, love and revenge be sufficiently explored amidst such lighthearted antics? Whether it’s the fault of playwright, translator, director or actors, Hilberry Theatre’s production of Lovers and Executioners rarely plumbs below the surface of its dating/mating shenanigans.
Luckily, this Wayne State University production does comedy well.
Part of this is owed to Strand’s witty translation of Montfleury’s verse. The rhyming couplets allow for many instances of clever wordplay and the sexual innuendoes are crowd-pleasers even among the over-50 set.
A colorful supporting cast keeps things moving as well. As Constance, Jennifer McConnell’s fussy mannerisms and affected behavior are a hoot. Her comic counterpart can be found in Tony Bozzuto’s Don Lope, one of her lovesick suitors. Playing the slick Spaniard with the upright posture of a Flamenco dancer and the loins of a “raging toreador” (as Constance remarks), Bozzuto earned applause at nearly every exit on opening night. McConnell and Bozzuto’s performances are often so entertaining that audiences can overlook what’s lacking.
That is, until the plot shifts back to the central characters. As Bernard, Andrew Huff is convincing in his clumsy attempts to woo Constance, but to believe his presumably late wife still “haunts” him — as he tells a confidante — is a stretch. As is the notion that this tepid man was once a cold-blooded killer.
Nikki Ferry’s self-righteous portrayal of Julie/Frederick only skimmed the surface of what the abused wife might have felt. Her reserved behavior whittles a seemingly complex role into an exercise in careful articulation and measured speech.
It would have been nice see Bernard’s anguish and Julie’s passion redirected into their quarrels, but instead their rivalry remains purely clinical. The absence of sexual chemistry, or any real chemistry at all, left me anxious for the supporting players to re-enter.
In keeping with the comedic tone of the production, Josh Fisher’s lighting design is bright and airy and Terry D. Jachimiak II’s set depicts a leafy courtyard scene appropriate for the time. I wondered, though, if such a literal set was the best choice, seeing that the courtroom and jail scenes had to adapt to this cheerful, open atmosphere, and so never took on the oppressive atmosphere they deserved.
John D. Woodland’s costumes played up the characters’ stock qualities and provided comic flair, although I wished Julie’s disguise had been more believable. The audience seemed to think it humorous that the simple act of letting down her hair made her once again recognizable to Bernard.
Although incongruous at times, the Hilberry’s production presents an amusing rendition of 17th century drama. And if — like me — you’ve never heard of Montfleury’s forgotten gem, be prepared for a script that could outrival any Tartuffe.
Lovers and Executioners plays through March 13. Tickets are $12-$20; students get a 50 percent discount on day of show. Hilberry is located at 4743 Cass Ave. Call 313-577-2972 for more information.Ronit Feldman is a freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org