Jeff Kline and Meaghan Bloom Fluitt in a scene from Le Cid
(Photo credit: Michael Abrams)
Although Pierre Corneille is considered the founder of French tragedy, his plays are rarely presented in New York. Aside from Tony Kushner’s translation of The Illusion presented three times in the last 25 years, Manhattan has not had another major production of this important French playwright since 1976. This may be due to poor translations. The Storm Theatre in association with Blackfriars Repertory Theatre is offering a staging of the new 2009 English verse translation of Corneille’s masterpiece, Le Cid, by two-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Richard Wilbur, which should go a long way to correct that problem.
Best known for his Moliere comedy translations, five of which have been produced on Broadway, Wilbur has in recent years turned to Corneille. Like the Moliere translations, the new Le Cid is in rhymed couplets just as in the original French. It is witty and accessible for a contemporary audience as a good translation ought to be, with clever end rhymes. This adds additional humor to Le Cid which may well be the first tragicomedy in European drama. The problem with this ambitious co-production is that many of the younger actors are not up to the task of dealing with rhymed couplets, unlike the veterans in the cast. Their line readings sound like they are unaware that they are either part of a conversation or thinking out loud. This makes for a very uneven evening in the theater.
Although Le Cid observes most of the classical unities, it is piles irony upon irony as in twentieth century drama, culminating in a happy ending. Based on the legend of the Spanish military hero Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, (nicknamed El Cid by the Moors), it is set in Seville at the court of Don Fernand, the first King of Castile. His daughter, The Infanta is in love with Don Rodrigue, son of the elderly general, Don Diègue. Unfortunately, as he is a commoner he is unacceptable as a suitor for her hand in marriage. As a result she has caused her friend and confidante Chimène, daughter of Count de Gormas, to fall in love with him. This love has been reciprocated. However, when Don Diègue is made tutor to the Prince, the jealous count insults him. As Don Diègue is too old and feeble to fight a duel, he convinces Rodrigue that it is his duty to uphold the family honor. When Rodrigue kills the count in the ensuing duel, Chimène petitions the king to bring about her revenge, while still loving Rodrigue. At this moment the Moors attack and Rodrigue is called to help save the country. And this is only the first part of the intricate plotting which heaps reversal upon reversal. Le Cid works out medieval honor in a Renaissance setting, creating a tragicomedy of royal proportions.
The staging by Peter Dobbins, artistic director of The Storm Theatre, makes excellent use of The Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame, while the simple Renaissance set design by Josh Iacovelli is enhanced by the architecture of the church vestry. Courtney Irizarry’s costume designs are a rich panoply of 17th century grandeur, emphasizing blacks and golds. The attractive cast is, unfortunately, not up to the requirements of the text. Jeff Kline looks every inch a hero as Don Rodrigue, but his stolid acting undercuts his intrepid role. As the heroine, Meaghan Bloom Fluitt declaims Chimène’s lines as though speaking in a language she doesn’t know, although she improves greatly in the second act. Cheri Paige Fogleman and Jessica Levesque as Chimene and The Infanta’s ladies-in-waiting, respectively, bring a good deal of liveliness to the play, but both are mannered in their own way. Benjamin Jones as a rival for the love of Chimène makes Don Sanche a negligible presence.
The evening is somewhat redeemed by the work of the veteran actors. Spencer Aste is a noble and judicious king. As his daughter, Jessica Zinder is most amusing, demonstrating that she understands the ironies behind everyone’s required individual moral stance including her own. As the elderly Don Diègue, Rodrique’s father, George Taylor brings a dignity and a gravity that adds heft to his role. Brian J. Coffey is most convincing as the hot-headed, resentful and arrogant count.
Given that Corneille’s Le Cid is so rarely staged and that this is the New York premiere of the excellent new Richard Wilbur translation, it is to be regretted that the entire cast is not up to the challenge of the rhymed verse. The worthiness of the play as a landmark of world literature, however, is still apparent in this colorful production.
Le Cid (through February 9)
The Storm Theatre, The Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame, 405 W. 114th Street, at Morningside Drive, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit http://www.smarttix.com
Running time: two hours