Theater Review: ‘The Libertine’ goes too far
Published: Monday, September 16, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 16, 2013 02:09
“Equal parts gritty, funny, sexy, dark and moving,” according to the Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company website, the Boston premiere of “The Libertine” (1994) certainly sets out to accomplish a lot. Produced in collaboration with New York-based theater company Playhouse Creatures and the Bridge Repertory of Boston (new to the local theater scene), “The Libertine” is the first production of the Bridge Rep’s first full season. Perhaps the added pressure of being the new kid on the block helps explain the very high expectations surrounding “The Libertine” — and maybe even a few of its bungles. Regardless, “The Libertine” can in no way be called a modest production.
Written by Stephen Jeffreys, the play itself is bawdy. “The Libertine” follows the decline of 17th century poet John Wilmot, played here by Joseph W. Rodriguez. An alcoholic, a cynic and an epic philanderer, Wilmot frequents the whorehouse and favors off-color humor. The musical number that opens the second act, entitled “Signior Dildo,” sums it up. The guide on this descent into debauchery, Wilmot gives the audience two direct warnings in the first lines of the play: First, he claims that he is always ready for sex and that in due course, everyone in the room will be attracted to him. Then, as if to clear the air, he explains, “I do not want you to like me.”
Needless to say, no faithful production of “The Libertine” could be demure, nor should it be. The play is an example of shock theatre, a genre that intentionally challenges and even offends the viewer’s sensibilities. The success of a vibrant and mixed-genre work like “The Libertine” hinges on preserving both raucous humor and bitter poignancy, as well as ensuring that these opposites complement rather than overwhelm each other. Sadly, this production of “The Libertine,” directed by Eric Tucker, too often fails to achieve this delicate balance.
Clumsily dampening humor with melancholy, or else undermining potentially profound moments with the strained delivery of a crude joke (or several), the production fails to achieve the comedy or the drama it strives for. Self-conscious, melodramatic and heavy background music does not connect with the production’s other playful and upbeat numbers (see: “Signior Dildo”). Although a few failed jokes would not be catastrophes on their own, “The Libertine” tries to be everything at the same time, which was the confusing nail in the coffin.
In one particular instance of this strained tendency, the costumes and set design created visual inconsistencies that detracted from their overall effect. Designed by Angela Huff, the costumes followed a more-is-more philosophy. Long, curly wigs, brightly colored coats and dresses, plumed hats and even a dab of bling (a sparkly earring on Harris, Wilmot’s most youthful crony, played by Daniel Duque-Estrada), were luxuriously over the top.
These elaborate costumes overwhelmed the minimalistic set, which consisted of a few wallpapered planks, a table and chairs. Wheels attached to the bottom of the furniture — a modern touch clearly added for convenience — destroyed the period setting. Because of this, a setting that might have otherwise appeared elegantly simple became a sloppy example of economic efficiency.
If there was one place where “The Libertine” shone, it was in the performances of the cast. Sarah Koestner was wonderfully genuine in her role as Wilmot’s devoted-but-conflicted wife. Richard Wayne and Eric Doss were both effortless and funny in their roles as King Charles II and servant Alcock, respectively. Romantic leads Rodriguez and Olivia D’Ambrosio, playing Wilmot’s lover and actress Elizabeth Barry, had believable chemistry on stage, albeit with a few regrettable instances of over-acting.
Although the Playhouse Creatures and the Boston Rep’s production of “The Libertine”
is far from perfect, it definitely takes some risks. In the theater, that’s good; risk is oftentimes necessary. By offering a hefty student discount — student tickets were $30 as opposed to $40 or more — hopefully the Boston Rep will continue to use its boundary-pushing theater to attract young audiences throughout the rest of the season. “The Libertine” will play at 527 Tremont Street until Sept. 22, and tickets can be purchased online at bostontheatrescene.com or by calling (617) 933-8600.