Intrigue and Love
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 18, 2005
In Intrigue and Love, a rich and powerful baron plots relentlessly and unscrupulously to solidify his position of influence with his Prince. First he contrives to extricate the Prince from a scandalous entanglement with a notorious lady by marrying said lady to his son. When that scheme runs afoul—for the son is in love with someone else, the beautiful daughter of a common music teacher—he and his henchman hatch a new plot: they jail the music teacher and his wife and then tell the daughter that the only way she'll see her parents again is to write a fraudulent love letter to the Lord Chamberlain. The baron arranges to have this letter conveniently "found" by his son, who (he thinks) will assume the worst and give up his lover for the father's choice. This plan, too, goes awry: the tragic result, by the end of Intrigue and Love, amounts to no fewer than five ruined lives—all for the sake of one avaricious man's political advancement.
The Baron, von Walter by name, learns that he has a worthy opponent in his son Ferdinand. The year is 1776, and though the locale is a German principality, thoughts of freedom and revolution are in the air; it is mentioned at one point that a platoon of local men has been mustered by the authorities to serve as mercenaries in the war in America. Ferdinand, stuck inside an aristocratic and feudal tradition that's about to implode, hears the call for independence, for self-determination for all men: his argument against his brutish father is not just that he wishes to love whom he chooses, but that he wishes to live as he chooses.
So this early play by Friedrich von Schiller surprises with its weight and—for its time—its daring. It was written in 1784, before the French Revolution, yet it's a very revolutionary play in places, which is why it's such an interesting find. And in its indictment of an upper class fixer who cares nothing for the common folk he stomps on to achieve his selfish ends, there's a kind of resonance (Enron? Martha Stewart?) that gives the play particularly relevance to 21st century America. Bravo to Jean Cocteau Repertory for sniffing out this relatively little-known piece and giving it a hearing today.
Bravo, too, for the fine new translation that they've commissioned from Lynn Marie Macy. The play straddles the line between heaving 18th century romance and a more modern suspense/thriller sensibility; so too does Macy's language artfully manage to feel accessible without being anachronistic and to wink at the excesses of Schiller's floridity without making fun of them. David Fuller's staging walks this fine line beautifully, as well, with the admittedly over-the-top machinations of von Walter and his allies and enemies all played in naturalistic style, while larger-than-life theatricality is reserved for the relatively minor characters of the Lord Chamberlain and the music master's wife, who function here almost as (much appreciated) comic relief.
Macy herself takes the role of Frau Miller, the would-be scheming wife plotting to give her daughter away to the most successful suitor she can find, not knowing that her interference is going to be the catalyst for the dire events that follow. Macy puts her just this side of harridan and shrew, with enough good intention to make us like her and a complete lack of self-awareness that almost makes us pity her folly. Jay Nickerson is her match and more as Herr Miller, a good man who loves his daughter above all else and wishes that her happiness and peace in the realm had not somehow gotten so inextricably bound together. Nickerson's bombast, reserved for his wife, is hilarious; his courageous and sentimental sides, seen by the others, are always vivid and believable.
Cocteau vet Angus Hepburn has a field day as von Walter, never confusing unadulterated greed with evil and consequently showing us a very human villain, as comprehensible as he is reprehensible. Ralph Petrarca is appropriately slimy as von Walter's snake-like private secretary, the aptly named Herr Wurm; while David Ledoux is both funny and a little bit insidious as the foppish coward von Kalb, the Lord Chamberlain who becomes von Walter's unwilling accomplice and, later, victim. As the young couple at the center of the story, Chad A. Suitts and Natalie Ballesteros are suitably overwrought. Suitts is smartly earnest as the rebellious young Ferdinand. Ballesteros, cast a little against type as the virtuous heroine Louisa Miller, is best when the plot allows her to deal self-sufficiently with von Walter and his dastardly plots, less convincing when the script calls upon her to swoon and faint at fairly slight provocation.
The most interesting character of all, played here by Amanda Jones with great conviction and panache, is Lady Milford, the British harlot who has been the Prince's mistress and is cause of much of the trouble. Schiller gives her a most surprising arc to play, which I won't reveal here because it's the neatest thing in the play: Jones is excellent as a haughty woman whose perspective gets tempered by events that fly out of her control.
In the end, despite a running time that's longer than what's customary nowadays, Intrigue and Love proves entirely compelling: we become absorbed in what these people are thinking and doing, and we care how it all comes out—to the point, even, of leaning forward at the edges of our seats during the climactic scenes that cap the second and third acts. Why ask more than that from the drama?