Moliere excepted, how many French Renaissance plays get produced in New York City these days? The British and Spanish playwrights of that period get seen with far more frequency; I can't recall a single presentation of Le Cid by Pierre Corneille in all my ternure at nytheatre.com; and I missed reading it in high school French (we did Racine instead), so I came to Storm Theatre's revival of this 17th century masterwork with no prior knowledge or expectation. As usual with a Storm production, what we get here is a clear, faithful rendering of a play about love, faith, and honor, here with the added bonus of a new Richard Wilbur translation that (as far as I know) has heretofore not been heard in NYC.
The play, written in 1637, is based on the life of medieval Spanish hero Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, called El Cid (or, in French, Le Cid). In the play, Rodrigue is the son of Don Diegue, a nobleman who is a favorite of the king, and is in love with Chimene, a beautiful, strong-willed, independent woman whose father, a Count, is a rival to Don Diegue. When Don Diegue gets a plum appointment that the Count thinks should have been his, a feud between the two older men ignites. The Count insults Don Diegue, who then urges his son—devotion to the Count's daughter notwithstanding—to fight the Count in a duel. This leads to the central question of the play: does honor (to one's parents, one's family, one's name) trump love? I enjoyed watching the tale and its complexities unfold, so I won't divulge more here; suffice to say that the path toward happiness that Rodrigue and Chimene find themselves forced upon is long and thorny and pushes them again and again to confront that fundamental issue.
In a way, the piece feels like an anti-Romeo & Juliet, with the lovers bound by code and duty to disavow their devotion, while others (notably the king) urge them to follow their romantic stars. The sensibilities of its two heroic leading characters are so opposed to contemporary ideas that it's sometimes hard to credit them, and director Peter Dobbins has wisely recognized this by lightening the play's generally heavy, idea(l)-laden structure where he can.
This production, performed with the audience on two sides of a long, narrow stage area, is sumptuously designed. Sets by Josh Iacovelli are in the style of the story's historical period, while the beautiful and surprisingly lavish (given the indie theater budget) costumes by Courtney Irizarry are in a Renaissance style. This makes for an intriguing tension that serves the piece smartly. Michael Abrams' lighting and Kenneth Goodwin's sound complete the creation of a theatrical world for Le Cid that at once feels intimate yet removed from our own.
Jeff Kline, a newcomer to Storm, is a solid, square-jawed, charismatic Rodrigue, who seems completely capable of the heroic feats ascribed to him. As his soulmate Chimene, the stately Meaghan Bloom Fluitt matches him with assurance, tenacity, and dignity. George Taylor and Brian J. Coffey, both frequent Storm actors, portray the two fathers with authority. Spencer Aste brings both gravity and compassion to the role of the king, while Jessica Zinder is dynamic as his daughter, the Infanta, who would love to have Rodrigue for her own. The fine supporting cast includes a particularly meritorious performance by Jessica Levesque as Leonor, the Infanta's lady-in-waiting, who uses her commading presence and diction to excellent effect as by turns she counsels and chides her charge.
In a city where Shakespeare's great tragedies and love stories are trotted out by the dozen on a monthly basis, it's a treat to get to experience some classic theater that's far less famililar. Kudos to the Storm for bringing us Le Cid and for providing a production that's engaging and thought-provoking.