nytheatre.com review by Lynn Marie Macy
November 7, 2010
The Libertine by Stephen Jeffreys was originally presented by London's Royal Court Theatre in February of 1995 and ran in repertory with George Etherege's The Man Of Mode, the 17th century comedy of manners whose main character Dorimont was inspired by restoration rogue John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647 – 1680). Jeffreys's script is an engaging look at the life of this notorious courtier, scandalous satirist, profligate rake, and dissolute drunkard who has remained an outrageous figure since the days of England's King Charles II. Jeffreys has described Rochester's story as "the darker side of human nature in the middle of the Enlightenment." A favorite of the King's, Rochester emerged as the leader of his "merry gang" of wits, which in reality included Etherege, Charles Sackville Earl of Dorset (and Middlesex), George Villiers Duke of Buckingham, Henry and Thomas Killigrew (later manager of The Kings Company), Sir Charles Sedley, and playwright William Wycherley. At his restoration to the throne Charles II re-opened the theatres and allowed actresses to tread the boards for the first time in England. It goes without saying that the court wits would have been drawn like magnets to the theatre, becoming central attractions as well as major participants of the epoch.
"Leave this gaudy gilded stage,
From custom more than use frequented,
Where fools of either sex and age,
Crowd to see themselves presented." - Rochester
The Libertine is a bold project for new company Playhouse Creatures Theatre to tackle. The play is set in London and its environs in 1675-76. Playwright Jeffreys depicts the Earl of Rochester as a fascinating study of contrasts: his passion for life stunted by his self-destructive habits; his love for his wife Elizabeth debased by his numerous sexual liaisons; his loyalty to his sovereign belied by his public satires of the monarchy. Charles II repeatedly banishes and forgives Rochester and yet in spite of himself, continues to admire the poet's intellect and artistry. The King commissions Rochester to write a great piece of literature. "Something profound that will stand as a monument to my reign." Rochester, ever pushing boundaries to the limit, instead gives the King a pornographic satire of the royal court. "I must always go to far, you see, it is my genius to go too far," Rochester says.
From the opening moments, Eric Tucker's direction captures the imagination. He has staged the play with creativity and inventiveness. Laura Taber Bacon's set is a perfect compliment to Tucker's action, taking us from location to location with ease. Multiple panels with attractive scenes of restoration London stretched over them function at various times as backdrops as well as structural settings. The set pieces are on wheels and slide quickly in and out of focus. Les Dicket's lighting is mood-setting and fun. His footlights cast an atmospheric glow, which helps to set the era and beautifully illuminates Bacon's panels. Angela Huff's costumes are really quite impressive and truly define Restoration London. I was, however, rather disappointed in the lack of period hairstyles for the women. It makes no sense to deck the men out flawlessly from periwigs to breeches and leave the women's hair limp and contemporary. It is so simple to employ a curling iron or a couple of well-placed clip-on hair pieces and is a detail that can ruin an otherwise perfect period silhouette. I also felt that Huff did not pay enough attention to Restoration actress Elizabeth Barry's rise to fame. She still looked like an orange wench even after her theatrical triumphs.
The ensemble is effective. Joseph W. Rodriguez (producing artistic director of Playhouse Creatures) takes on the role of Rochester and is a kinder, gentler sort of dissolute libertine. He has an excellent command of language and the ability to twist his satirical knife with a wry grin. His debauchee appears to want us like him despite his numerous protestations at the onset. Patricia Duran plays Elizabeth Barry, Rochester's mistress and protege with stern conviction. Eric Doss is cast as Alcock, Rochester's opportunistic servant, as well as in the role of King Charles II. Doss is perfectly suited to the role of Alcock and is thoroughly coarse and funny but falls short of the regal mark as the omnipotent Restoration potentate, despite the fantastic clothing. This particular dual casting was distracting and did little to serve the play. Libby Arnold charms as the plucky prostitute Jane but her dialect needs work. (Indeed the dialects throughout were a bit uneven.) Sarah Koestner is convincing and touching as Rochester's long suffering wife Elizabeth Malet. Tom O'Keefe, Harry Oram, and Ross Bennett Hurwitz shine as the court wits and Clare Warden delights as the prickly 17th century stage manager Molly Luscombe.
ETHEREGE: I have caught the scent and flavor of our age and set it down for all time. The Man Of Mode. You didn't write it because you couldn't.
ROCHESTER: I didn't write it because I was too busy living it. I am the age, I don't want to be its chronicler.
Rochester continues to rage and battle his demons to the end, "Give me wine, I will drain it to the dregs and toss the empty bottle at the world"
The Libertine, while made into a film starring Johnny Depp in 2005, is not a play that is often performed. Playhouse Creatures Theatre has mounted a solid and engaging production—one that, based on the abilities of all involved, will no doubt grow during the course of its run. (I caught the final preview.) I would definitely recommend the production as an introduction to this ambitious company and as a great opportunity to see Jeffreys's startling, fascinating (albeit raunchy) work on stage.