The Guardsman by Ferenc MolnŠr. Directed by John Rando.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"As long as you owe me money, I will know you."
MolnŠrís saucy sex comedy, "The Guardsman," was an eight performance flop in 1913 when it first appeared on Broadway as "Where Ignorance is Bliss." Translated by Philip Littell, a well-known American author and translator (his same-named descendent now writes opera librettos) it didnít attract much attention in the American arena. Eleven years later, in Phillip Moellerís translation, the Theatre Guild paired two of its best young actors, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, for a successful 273 performance run of a play they would continue to revive and to send out on tours for the next decade. This version was sold to MGM and the Lunts, now a married couple, repeated their roles in their only full-length movie appearances. The script was later used as the framework for a musical version of Oscar Strausís operetta, The Chocolate Soldier, and it has been the basis for three more movies, a couple of musical versions and the occasional stock production somewhere.
Itís a very funny play. An actor, jealous of his wife and sure she is falling in love with another man, creates a man for her to love and plays that man for his wife. She falls for him and he never knows if she was true to him through his new character, or untrue in the same way.
Currently the Berkshire Theatre Festival is presenting an excellent version of the Moeller script (new translators are listed in the program but what I heard was startlingly the Moeller version) starring another husband and wife team of players, Michel Gill and Jayne Atkinson. In a very stylish production with Klimt inspired costumes designed by David Murin for her and a set that resembles the Alte Pinakothek in Berlin, where the play is set, designed by Alexander Dodge, the leading players, abetted by Mary Louise Wilson, Richard Easton, Tara Franklin and Stephen DeRosa, deliver a solid, laugh-filled edition of the play.
Franklin plays Liesl, the maid and she delivers strong moments as she snoops about, lusts after her employerís husband, and plays at being a perfect maid, something she is definitely not. DeRosa delivers nicely as the Usher, Mr. Spengler (a rewrite from the original usher, Mrs. Spengler) and is even more enjoyable as the Creditor who pursues the Actor for middle-sized debt. He delivers some of the best comedy lines including one that is really a simple statement of fact.
As The Mama, a role that can be as confusing as it can be humorous, the company offers the delectable Mary Louis Wilson. No stranger to the odd line and odd action, Wilson presents a remarkable character in the odd, employee position of the Mama. Wilson definitely can make the most of a simple line of dialogue and in her red wig she loses about thirty years younger than her actual age. The Critic is played by Easton. He makes the characterís undeclared love for the Actress go a long way. The ten years of that relationship are swept away into something new and romantic every time he comes into contact with Atkinsonís character. He brings an old-world charm to the part and that is just what the role demands.
Atkinson and Gill are a beautiful couple. Together they present a picture of two egoistic, self-centered people who love one another in spite of the fact that in the twenty-four hour period of the play they are not themselves but other people. These two show us how it is possible for love to exist in a world where no one loves anyone else as well as you can love yourself. Gill has a strong personality as the Actor, but when he disguises himself as The Guardsman, he becomes dark, Russian, and something he seems unable to be as himself, exotic and erotic. He allows us to see the mystery in his characters by playing them fully.
Atkinson as The Actress plays with the opulence of the role as written. She drags herself screaming from one emotional outburst to another. She charms with a smile that can kill, eyes that can hypnotize and arms that can manipulate continents without half trying. When she catches her husband "acting" she pulls no punches, but tells him off instantly. Atkinson plays this role so well it makes one question the concept of acting at all, rather than living life out loud in front of an audience.
John Rando has directed this show with more style and much more flare than anticipated. He has capitalized on the period and the stage manner of the time, providing much leeway for his principal actors in their gestures and line readings. He has held the comedy together nicely, pacing the play appropriately and letting all of its humor leap off the page onto the stage. His only major error occurs in the third act (there are two intermissions, folks, just like the playwright wanted) when the Actorís trunk blocks a major scene from those sitting in the first several rows on the right side of the house. His lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger has left some hideous shadows on the stage right walls and occasionally left the actors in blind spots as well.
One of the best productions on the Stockbridge stage in a long time, The Guardsman is a show you owe it to yourself to see. This very good play is not done often, so take advantage of a unique opportunity and enjoy this 24 hour excursion into the meaning of love and lovers, marriage and career.
Richard Easton and Michel Gill; photo: Sarah Moazani
Mary Louise Wilson and Jayne Atkinson; photo: Sarah Moazani
Gill as The Guardsman; photo: Sarah Moazani
The Guardsman plays through July 31 on the Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA. For information and tickets, call the box office at 413-298-5576 or visit their website at www.berkshiretheatre.org.