Love Sucks

No happy endings: Emily Gunyou Halaas as the Contessa
Dominique Serrand

There ought to be a vast library, someplace suitably severe and picturesque, where the infinite falsehoods of romance could be catalogued and filed away. There are the lies we tell to those we love, to capture and keep them, as well as the lies we tell ourselves to keep all our schemes afloat. The French playwright Pierre de Marivaux was a connoisseur of bad faith, and in La Fausse Suivante he managed to pack in just about every trick, pretense, double-cross, and rip-off imaginable.

Jeune Lune's adaptation, The Deception, wades right into the thicket. We meet Trivelin (Steven Epp), who claims to have once been a man of means but is now scraping for odd jobs. Opportunity arises in the form of Chevalier (Merritt Janson), a woman disguised as a man who needs an attendant while she campaigns to win the heart of the Contessa (Emily Gunyou Halaas) from all-around cad Lelio (Casey Greig).

It sounds as though it's going to be complicatedly tedious, but this adaptation by Epp and director Dominique Serrand wisely elides the cogs and gears of Marivaux's machinations in favor of the powerful currents running beneath each character's facade in this improbable world. Halaas's Contessa is full of frolic and guileless charm, for instance, until she's turned by Chevalier's flattery and begins to visibly enjoy the notion of men fighting over her (even if, in Lelio's case, the rivalry is staggeringly insincere).

David Coggins's set contributes mightily to the sense that we are uprooted in both time and place (Marivaux's play was first performed in 1724, though this is far from a period piece). Composed entirely of panes of glass stretching up to the ceiling and daubed with bright paint, the visual field shifts with Marcus Dilliard's subtly gorgeous lighting to create a feeling that the action could well be taking place deep within someone's subconscious—someone with a chillingly dispiriting take on the human heart.

In due course, Chevalier shows signs of buying into her feigned ardor for the Contessa (Janson doesn't oversell this, though her look of wide-eyed adoration for Halaas lends ambiguity and foreshadowing for what comes later), and Lelio sees disturbing signs that his plans are going into the toilet. Greig throws extra slime into the role, with long, stringy hair, powder-keg temperament, and amped-up, jitterbug strides.

When the artifices finally fall, gender and power subtexts are rife but left to stand without over-emphasis. Janson guides Chevalier's inevitable metamorphosis with a poetic brokenness, and Halaas lends fire to the Contessa's fast-motion process of wising up to the ways of her world (she provokes heartbreak, all the while facing the weaknesses of her particular illusions).

In the end, it is Trivelin who has the last word, basically denouncing everyone and hitting the road, and it's an act that is nicely emblematic of this restless and morally bleak show. Throughout, Epp and Serrand very capably deliver Marivaux into contemporary language (the playwright's name was in his time synonymous with literary frippery), without generating anachronisms of their own. Mostly they get there by employing harsh, crude expressions that jar the ear while laying bare the stark idea-space we traverse. Trivelin, for his part, outlines his barebones philosophy of life from the get-go: "Man is a fuckwad."

Marivaux wrote La Fausse Suivante during a downturn in his fortunes, and was clearly not in the mood for doling out a happy ending. Jeune Lune's update follows suit, as it must. This is a story about subterfuge and insincerity, after all—things that tend to leave wreckage in their wake. When the cast leaves the stage after the applause and gathers in a circle, the actors launch into a lovely, short choral number. It's a great recognition of the need to remember beauty in the face of spiritual ugliness, and a ritual of banishment directed at all the bad juju generated in the previous two hours. Amazingly, it feels necessary, which is as direct an acknowledgement imaginable that something powerful has just taken place.

at Theatre de la Jeune Lune
through November 25

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