Filichia Features: Triumph of Love Yields the Unexpected

Filichia Features: Triumph of Love Yields the Unexpected

We've seen it happen many times in Shakespeare's plays -- and plenty of other classic comedies, too. A woman disguises herself as a man, and no one is the wiser -- except everyone in the audience.

That includes the savvy playgoers who recently enjoyed Triumph of Love at Bristol Riverside Theatre in Pennsylvania. Few if any of them thought that Princess Leonide of Sparta, although winningly played by Alex Keiper, would pass for a man. Between her tacked-on mustache and not even a shadow of a five o'clock shadow, who'd be fooled?

And yet, the audience fully expected that after Princess Leonide adopted her disguise and dubbed herself Phocion, all the characters would assume they were dealing with a man.

Pierre de Marivaux's 1732 play Le Triomphe de l'amour -- and its 1997 musical adaptation that Riverside did splendidly -- are refreshing because in both, Hermocrates, a philosopher, and Harlequin, his valet, take one look and know that "he's" a she.

The reason that Princess Leonide dresses as a man will resonate with both women and fair-minded men: Hermocrates simply won't allow women into his garden. (It is, by the way, the only set you'll need, although it is an ornate topiary -- meaning a garden where shrubs and trees are sculpted into spheres, one atop another).

Princess Leonide must get into the garden, though, because she's seen tall, dark and handsome Agis - only from afar, yes, but close enough to feel that he has the music that makes her dance.

So once Hermocrates outs her, Leonide can think of nothing else but attempt to seduce him. This won't be easy; decades ago Hermocrates dismissed romance. Still, the young miss butters him up. That gets the man's long-dormant motor going -- not immediately, mind you; he's too set in his ways for that - but eventually.

Hermocrates's has a long-unmarried sister Hesione, who doesn't see through Leonide's ruse and believes her to be a man. To get into her good graces, "Phocion" starts romancing her. Hesione too needs time to trust, for Phocion is substantially younger, so she presumes he wouldn't want someone "of that age that dare not speak its number."

As the adage goes, "There's no fool like an old fool." Bookwriter James Magruder, adapting his own translation of the Marivaux, and lyricist Susan Birkenhead - in conjunction with composer Jeffrey Stock - reinforce that aging people are time-bombs whose fuses can be lit by love.

Two wrongs hardly make a right, so when you tackle the show, make sure that your Princess Leonide conveys that these romantic ruses are her last resorts. We should feel Leonide's desperation being under pressure and unable to think of any other way to be with Agis. If she regrets resorting to trickery, we'll forgive her being a double agent with two characters because of her single-minded love.

Pretending to be a man, though, will make her quest harder. Leonide starts with friendship, and although Agis likes "Phocion," he loathes the Princess he's heard about for years. Her family usurped the kingdom from his family.

Once Leonide fully comprehends the truth, she's ready to give up the throne. So, is this merely another story where the woman capitulates? No - this is a story where a woman does the right thing, for Agis is truly entitled to his birthright.

I've never met an actress who hasn't enjoyed playing a man, and although I've yet to shake hands with Alex Keiper, she certainly seemed to relish the opportunity. And so did Rebecca Robbins as Corine, Leonide's maid - or Troy in her male guise. Harlequin (a stylish Adam Hoyak), sees through her as well, which eases their falling in love. "Guess it's time for a Harlequin romance," said Robbins with just enough of a wink.

Although Hermocrates and Hesione aren't leading roles, they're obviously terrific parts if one Oscar-winner and one Tony-winner respectively wanted to play them on Broadway. F. Murray Abraham there and Carl Wallnau at Riverside were funny in playing rocks that slowly began to crumble.

Chances are the song "Serenity," a gorgeous ballad that is a musical scene in itself, was enough to make Betty Buckley say "Sign me up!" At Riverside, Joy Franz - Cinderella's Stepmother in the original Into the Woods - made the song soar. She was also most amusing in being haughty when Keiper began treating her as a hottie.

Rounding out the Riverside cast was Jake Delaney, who nicely played the home-schooled, naive and unsocialized Agis and Danny Rutigliano, who had a high old time playing low comedy as the gardener.

And that's your entire cast - a mere seven, which makes a production that much easier. But don't let the small size fool you -Triumph of Love is truly a triumph of joy and laughter of huge proportions.


Read more Filichia Features .

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at and Tuesday at . His book, The Great Parade: Broadway's Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at