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Dispute This

Battle of sexes still unresolved

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In light of imminent geopolitical conflagration, the battle of the sexes can easily seem like a privileged fancy. But TheatreWorks' production of Marivaux's The Dispute still manages to be a worthwhile engagement.

If you haven't been to The Dwire Theater, this is one of the last chances before TheatreWorks moves to its new digs in the former Compassion International campus. The premise of Marivaux's fable is a lab experiment of sorts. A prince (Rich Zahradnik) has informed his wife (Jane Fromme) that he has reared four unfortunate souls (two men, two women) in pastoral isolation for the last 20 years. Isolated from all but their loyal caretakers, their purpose is to settle once and for all that irksome question: Which sex is more prone to indiscretion? (The answer of course, is gay men, but let's not get into that now.)

Social engineering is a timeless gimmick to introduce larger social themes and to give actors the chance to emerge from various cocoons of idealism or mere stupidity. Films like The Truman Show or Trading Places come to mind, but there's too many more to name.

The first to emerge from the wilderness rat cage is Egle (Anjelica Bencomo), who wastes no time in falling head over heels with her own reflection. Until she meets Azor (Hossein Forouzandeh), with whom she's nearly as quick to profess eternal devotion.

Enter the next couple: Adine (Ulrike Rosser) and Mesrin (Paul Kessler) who quickly proceed to agitate the situation by seducing the other's partner. Ultimately, the prince's premise has been blurred into a messy octagon of vanity, ego and understandable emotional buffoonery as all four subjects tussle about the AstroTurfed set like a gaggle of coquettish squirrels.

Though clocking in at a brief 90 minutes, The Dispute spends too much time mired in the characters' wide-eyed self-discovery. Granted, these naive subjects have spent two decades in coddled isolation served only by their managers: Carise (Jasmine Grier) and Mesrou (Kenneth Grant). But this doesn't make their largely overacted foibles more interesting. To observe their realization that they are not the only humans on the planet and that the world is a big, scary place is made somewhat more endurable by the fancy flute work of accompanying sprite, Adrienne Rankin.

Where The Dispute gets interesting is when the subjects attempt to reconcile their wants with one another. The alacrity with which confidences are betrayed and acrimony accrued rivals that of the pop culture pornography known as reality television. In Marivaux's interpretation of human nature, women eye each other with extreme suspicion while men indulge in a benignly superficial chumminess. While this is a bit questionable, the subject's desire for an enduring multiplicity of adoration is where the 18th-century playwright's vision still seems to hold true.

The end result of the Prince's experiment recalls an urban legend, whose source, like all purveyors of such fables, "swears it's true."

Christmas morning, two identical twin girls are shown their identical gifts of two red bicycles. The father decides that since one twin is 10 seconds older that she can choose her bike. The girl pauses in befuddlement at the two indistinguishable gifts. "Well, which do you want?" the father asks with amusement.

"Hers."

-- John Dicker

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