Sunday, April 01, 2001

'Lovers' is Festival at best

Actors strut stuff in bawdy comedy

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival has a delicious surprise in store for audiences through April 22. It is the new and old, high and low, belly-laughing and heart-cracking Lovers and Executioners. And it is the festival at its best.

        As to the new and old, Lovers is set in 17th-century France but written in 1998. Playwright John Strand has written properly — and oh, so improperly — in verse, with an eye and an ear to what is both sophisticated and screamingly funny to contemporary audiences.

        He also has liberated his women, who have minds of their own and act on their inclinations.

        Primary among them is Julie, a faithful wife who, in a prologue, is suspected of adultery by her jealous and socially conscious husband, Bernard. He leaves her on a deserted island to die. She doesn't die but returns three years later to exact revenge.

        An old plot, but newly told by Mr. Strand, expands what would have been flat characters in a bawdily arch comedy 400 or so years ago.

        It's still hilariously bawdy but the characters are deepened and expanded by conscience and awareness of consequences.

        Giles Davies is pitch-on as the darkly guilt-ridden and self-justifying Bernard.

        Festival founding member Marni Penning, who has a great gift for comedy, returns to light up the stage as Julie, posing as foppish Frederic. (Oh, the rouged cheeks, the fabulous hair, the maniacal laugh, the lithp.)

        Julie struggles with her rapier and her rage, pain and confusion. Why has this happened to her?

        Julie and Bernard are surrounded by the requisite servants and secondary comic romance (and everyone looks fabulous in costumes by Heidi Schiemer).

        When the action picks up three years after the “murder,” “widowed” Bernard wishes to marry spoiled Constance (a delightful Anne E. Schilling), who is smitten with Julie/Frederic.

        Constance is also being wooed by Don Lope, an over-the-top Spaniard brought to outrageous life by Brian Isaac Phillips in one of the best comic performances of the year. He preens, he fumes, he sneers, he rhymes.

        Mr. Phillips caps a collection of admirable performances this season by pushing his character to the edge. Don Lope doesn't fall, he flies.

        The action plays out on a basically bare stage (there is a pretty pink memorial fountain to long-lost Julie at the rear wall), the better for swordplay, the many comic duels courtesy of fight choreographer K. Jenny Jones.

        The small cast of characters is filled by the festival's core company, and they shine even the slightest roles as director Jasson Minadakis effortlessly shifts the mood from shadow to light and back.

        Jeremy Dubin steps back from his last outing as Shylock to play Bernard's valet and comic foil. He is matched by Amy Hutchins as a flirtatious servant.

        Nick Rose does another of his expert performances. He plays noble Octavius, who loves Julie in vain, and aids her in her plotting despite his better judgment.

        Perhaps most satisfying is Mr. Strand's unwillingness to deliver an indiscriminate happy ending for this couple who have been both lover and executioner to each other.

        This is one you shouldn't miss. Lovers and Executioners is a terrific night (or matinee) at the theater.

        Lovers and Executioners, through April 22, Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival. 381-2273.


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