Timothy Douglas’s bold new Changes of Heart, his second work as the new artistic director at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, is thing of two worlds, and needs to decide what it wants to be. Marivaux’s French masterpiece, brought to life by Steven Wadsworth’s unpretentious translation is, at its heart, a commedia farce. The tone of this production, however, is mostly somber, focusing on human emotion and honesty. It’s got some serious intelligence behind it, and it is a hugely ambitious experiment but it sometimes comes at the expense of the fun. Pure, unadulterated physical comedy certainly creeps into Douglas’s staging, but in the way Wile E. Coyote would wander onto the Titanic, interrupting the ruminations and of star-crossed young lovers who don’t know what they want, crashing through the deck on an anvil, the center of attention for a moment, and then sunk. It’s worth coming for these moments, especially to watch Jake Szczepaniak, an irrelevant ensemble member who speaks to the audience only through the records he plays—I will give away no more—steal the show. There's a lot about it that's a real blast.
Douglas brings the French court to 1960’s Chicago. We’ve got the Prince Daley I, played by the sensitive, tortured Steve Wojtas, who, disguised as a “guardsman,” a well-dressed plainclothes cop with a lime green tie, falls in love with Silvia, a girl from the South Side. Only problem is that sweet Silvia—and I don’t mean that sarcastically; Alana Arena’s performance was sensitive and vulnerable—has already promised herself to the simple Harlequin, who Nicolas Gamboa inhabits as a ridiculous Antonio Banderas superhero complete with mask, belt-buckle, bat, and funny accent. What is a Prince to do in such trying circumstances but to kidnap his love and lock her in his palace? But of course we know from the getgo that the Prince and Silvia are destined to be together.
The chief problem with approaching Changes of Heart—other alias The Double Inconstancy—as a human drama is that the entire plot is given away by the title. We know that at the end of the 2 hour and 45 minute evening spackled with two intermissions, the characters will have—you guessed it—changed heart. The fun is in watching the journey and what happens to them as they start to do exactly that, but the main thing they wade through in this performance is a lot of guilt. The production does surprise you with witticisms and poignancies, and some truly alive and genuine moments from the eligible cast, but it’s still hard not to spend a lot of time waiting for the characters to get on with it. By the middle of the play, even Silvia and Harlequin realize that they love other people, but they can’t bring themselves to break the rules of society, the vows that they made in their youthful naïveté. They start looking for an excuse, saying maybe I could leave but only if he did it first, and then they stall until something happens.
That setup is perfect for commedia. Two characters want to be together, society says that they can’t, and so they execute elaborate schemes to find some sort of loophole. Conflict, status, forward momentum, absurdity, relevance. Done. But executed in such understated tones, the societal barrier that stands in their way is, quite frankly, really annoying. I get it, inter-race relationships were not done in the 60’s. But despite the paisleys, I honestly forget that we were there with all the talk of courtiers and palaces. It just feels like an aesthetic choice.
There are a couple of exceptions to that, which makes the setting truly haunting, the one that most comes to mind is when Lisette, played by Jessica Maynard who is also in love with the Prince, goes to meet Silvia to see what all the fuss is about. “Go on, be fresh,” she says, and suddenly Silvia really is the black girl from the South Side, made into a trend.
Maynard’s performance as Lisette, incidentally, deserves a mention for making my heart break a little. It’s quite poignant how hard she tries to be loved, and how easily she is overlooked, rejected, forgotten. Her arc feels, in a way, the most universal of all, relevant in the 60’s, in the French court, and today as well.
It’s unfair to talk about her without mentioning the others in the cast, who are all clearly very capable. They are clearly having a blast. Linda Gillum as Flaminia and D'Wayne Taylor as Trivelin are a lot of fun to watch as they play commedia status games with Harlequin. The best parts are how honest some of the performances are. Douglas’s rare talent for rendering problematic, challenging characters into human beings is clear, once again. I’m reminded of the end of the play, when Harlequin is unmasked, finally resigned to be honest. “How weak good people can be,” he says.
The characters’s weakness is concurrently the strongest and weakest parts of the play. Gorgeous in their humanity, so frustrating in a farce.
Changes of Heart runs at the Greenhouse Theater Center, at 2257 N Lincoln Ave until January 8th. Call (773) 40-GREEN for tickets if you live in the stone age. Otherwise, your best bet is www.remybumppo.org. Ask all your burning questions at the talk with translator Stephen Wadsworth before the show on Saturday December 10th as part of Remy Bumppo’s Between the Lines series.