It is always impressive when a work that is centuries old features themes that still manage to ring true today. That is definitely the case for The False Servant, a co-production of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and the Evidence Room that opened this past weekend.
The False Servant is one of over thirty comedic plays written by French playwright Marivaux in the 18th century. This production is based on Martin Crimp’s adaptation and directed by Bart DeLorenzo. The plot is simultaneously extremely complicated and very simple—it is a classic comedy about deception and perhaps love (the latter is debatable) and follows a young woman who decides to dress as a man to learn more about the man she wants to marry. Things quickly become convoluted, as all six characters in the play are deceiving someone (usually multiple people) to the point where it is nearly impossible to keep track of who is backstabbing whom. Despite staying true to the dialect of the time period, the adaptation also has a bit of a modern feel, right down to the inclusion of sneakers and baseball caps in the costumes.
The cast of six is led by Chastity Dotson as the woman in disguise as the handsome and charming “Chevalier.” She gets close to the rather despicable Lelio, played by Christian Leffler, to assess his character—an assessment he fails spectacularly. Lelio is already betrothed to a surprisingly perceptive Countess, played by Dorie Barton. All three are frequently annoyed by scheming, money-driven servants Trivelin and Arlequin, played by Barry Del Sherman and Matthew Bazulka, respectively. Cody Chappel plays a character named Frontin, who largely disappears from the story after the opening scene but returns to perform humorous musical interludes that help set the mood. I found the musical element to be a bit jarring and out-of-place, but it fit with the offbeat humor of the play. The cast was collectively excellent with great comedic timing, drawing many laughs from the enthusiastic opening weekend crowd.
The production design is incredibly simple, which provides a nice contrast to the intentionally convoluted plot. The set, designed by Frederica Nascimento, is a plain white staircase that takes up nearly the entire stage, allowing the performances to shine without distraction. The costumes are intentionally a bit over the top and too modern for the period in which the play is set, adding to the ironic feel of the entire work.
Buried amongst the laughs and absurdity, The False Servant is making some statements about gender roles that are as interesting today as they would have been in the 1700s. The entire concept that only a fellow man can truly get to know a man’s character rings sad but true, as do the frequent crude remarks about the “expected” behavior of women. Refusing to give the Chevalier a straight answer regarding her feelings, the Countess reminds “him” that women must be ambiguous. It’s a bit depressing that this attitude is still largely prevalent centuries later. Although great strides have obviously been made over the years, many people are still surprised when women are straightforward about their wants and needs, and it is certainly true that women do not always get an honest first impression of a man in the same way that other men do. The themes rang so true that the audience laughter in response to some of Lelio’s more sexist comments seemed, appropriately, a bit uncomfortable.
The message of the play, despite being a comedy, is ultimately rather bleak. The search for the truth turns into the biggest deception of all, and for a play about love, nearly everyone is more motivated by greed. I did find that I saw a lot of the plot twists coming, perhaps because characters’ actions become a bit predictable when they are so clearly driven by selfishness. While it becomes clear by the end which character the title The False Servant is referring to, it could apply to almost everyone. These complexities, however, are what make this a work you’ll continue thinking about long after leaving the theater.
The False Servant runs at the Odyssey through September 6th. For a detailed performance schedule and a link to purchase tickets, please visit the Odyssey’s website. Tickets range from $15 to $34, with special $10 tickets available for the July 17, July 23, and July 29 performances.