nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
May 19, 2010
John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, defined the spirit of his age. His raucous wit and insatiable lust became the hallmarks of the Restoration "man of mode." Indeed, he's said to have inspired the character of Dorimant, the quintessential rake, in George Etherege's comedy, The Man of Mode.
Rochester's life also provides the foundation for Stephen Jeffreys's 1994 play, The Libertine. Jeffreys shows Rochester near the end of his life, at the peak of his charm and loathsomeness and in the midst of existential despair that's shockingly postmodern. In his bluntly deprecatory prologue, Rochester cautions, "You will not like me now and you will like me a good deal less as we go on." The play follows his descent into utter debasement. His determination to be "unlikeable" poisons his every relationship, from his marriage, to his affair with an actress, to a friendship with a young "spark" who idolizes him . One last, desperate drunken brawl proves to have fatal consequences to Rochester's reputation, and he cannot recover.
Much as Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses evokes the erotic languor of 1780s France by emulating the style of its source novel, Jeffreys's work captures the feisty sexuality of Restoration England by paying homage to that era's saucy plays. Hence, the prologue, epilogue, frequent use of direct address, simpering orange wenches, and scenes set in coffee/bawdy houses. You sense a defiant liveliness, pervaded by varying degrees of self-loathing. In Rochester's case, his brilliance is cut short by a festering self-hatred so deep it drives him to destroy anything or anyone in his path.
Director Eric Tucker stages The Libertine with breathtaking flair. He transforms the challenges of the Chernuchin Theatre space—an imposing high proscenium surrounded by catwalks and ladders—into virtues. The action takes place on every level—stage, catwalk, ladder, and even the house. In one cheeky moment during the first theatre scene, the orange sellers parade into the audience and toss fruit at them.
Scenic elements are limited. No set designer is even listed in the program. As a result, the disparate set pieces—wooden chairs of various shapes, a table that doubles as a stage and a bed, and a white parachute silk backdrop/curtain—feel oddly cobbled together, suggesting not so much a unified aesthetic as leftovers from a theatre garage sale. Still, what's there is used with Brechtian economy. The silk curtain is pulled open by actors standing on opposite catwalks, marking the beginning and end of the first act with a flourish. It also provides a backdrop against which actors stand in shadow, memorably creating the image of the Dorset Garden theater company acting onstage while Rochester looks on wistfully from the wings.
Tucker uses the ensemble to help establish a sense of place. Dressed in deliberately shabby Restoration grandeur by costume designer Ella Sawtell, their faces painted a ghostly white punctuated by fever-red rouge, the actors create an eerie chorus. They form a chattering crowd at a coffeehouse, a jeering audience at the theatre, a boisterous ensemble of dancers in a lewd play by Rochester. In perhaps the production's most striking scene, the lights dim to near black, with the stage seemingly lit only by flickering candles (a moment beautifully arranged by lighting designer Drew Vanderburg). Half-hidden by the darkness, the company instantly transforms into the denizens of London's notorious "Dog and Bitch Yard." With whispered catcalls and flashes of bare limbs, they create the secretive, desperate environment of one of Rochester's favorite assignation places.
Each actor creates a fully-realized character, with many doubling or tripling roles. Ken Schatz makes a commanding Rochester, skillfully embodying his descent into despair. He lacks something of the double-edged hauteur the role requires, but he nonetheless makes a diffident character empathetic. Andrus Nichols portrays Elizabeth Malet, Rochester's long-suffering wife, with heartbreaking dignity. Carey Urban plays Elizabeth Barry, the struggling actress whose star potential captivates Rochester, and she makes believable Barry's transformation from awkward ingenue to acclaimed leading lady. Rufus Collins brings monarchial authority to King Charles II, skillfully playing the king's love/hate relationship with Rochester. Olivia Gilliatt makes a fearless Jane, Rochester's favorite prostitute, finding a hint of despair beneath Jane's toughness.
Composer Alex Sovrosnsky has designed a beautifully florid original score, accentuated by the evocative sound design Kristin Worrall.
The Libertine displays its playwright's gift for beautiful, soul-searching monologues and striking stage imagery, but it never quite grasps the depth of Rochester's despair, or the passion in his brief, Svengali-like affair with Elizabeth Barry, whom he groomed into the leading actress of her age. Something feels missing—the true heat of emotion, the discomforting charge of Rochester's angst. It's a flaw this highly accomplished version cannot mask. Still, the Fools' Theatre have created a startlingly theatrical, and at times moving, production.