Providence Players of Fairfax opens their 2018-2019 season continuing a tradition of eclectic programming capable of showcasing acting talent with “Lovers and Executioners.”
The tragi-comedy by John Strand made its debut 20 years ago in 1998 at Washington D.C.’s arena stage and has gained national acclaim since. Adapted from a 1669 French play and translated into English while preserving a rhyming scheme, “Lovers and Executioners” is a complex tale of courtship, justice, revenge and social status. The weight of the play’s heavy plot is made significantly lighter with the poetic nature of the dialogue, physical comedy and swordplay.
At the center of the story is the entitled Bernard (Chris Persil) who flaunts his wealth to substitute for his clumsy attempts at courtship and political maneuvering, his former wife who had been presumed dead but now disguises herself as a man (Julie/Frederick played by Kristin K. Apker) and is seeking revenge and the new object of his affections: a spoiled aristocrat named Constance (Emily-Grace Rowson).
Three years ago, Julie was marooned on a desert isle for the crime of adultery by Bernard and she was rescued by Octavius (Scott Stofko), who trained her in swordfighting in her quest for revenge. The hitch? Octavius is now in love with Julie. In the proverbial downstairs quarters, there is the apathetic Guzman (Joshua McCreary) who sucks up to his master but mostly loathes him and the melodramatic Beatrice (Jaclyn Robertson) who has a couple of secrets of her own. To top off the cast, there is the Spaniard Don Lope (Chuck O’Toole) who plays the Latin lover in what is perhaps the most stereotypical role in the play (though not without its fun).
One of the impressive facets of the play is how the characters’ stories receive roughly equal attention and many of the scenes feature different combinations of the seven characters without losing much of the play’s flow.
The rhyming dialogue is also one of the primary attractions here. Watching the wordplay unfold and the actors jump through such tongue twisters with glee is a pseudo-magic trick. The script is also extremely clever in the way it’s not beholden to any form. There are occasional lines that don’t rhyme for dramatic effect, opening couplets that might be left dangling for suspense before being completed, and rhymes traded between characters to show chemistry or heated anger.
Many of the actors (particularly McCreary and Robertson) infuse the roles with verve and a helpful degree of playful exaggeration to keep long monologues and soliloquies from dragging; and there is a deliberate contrast among those who don’t. In contrast to Guzman and the others, Bernard is easily flummoxed as a sign of his guilt and feelings of lacking since losing his better half.
It’s also worth noting that Bernard is occasionally too frustrated to rhyme which is a very clever way to partially break the fourth wall. Similarly, Octavius adds more contrast, speaking with more sincerity as a sign of his longing for Julie.
The play was directed by Beth Hughes-Brown who picked the play because it had a lot of truth behind its comedy.
“I always see comedy as something that is particularly necessary,” she said.
Asked about the language, Hughes-Brown said she and the cast worked really hard to make the play accessible and had a successful preview for a very diverse age group age before debuting it to the public.
The play runs at James Lee Community Center (2855 Annandale Rd., Falls Church) on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. through Oct. 20 and at Sunday on 2 p.m. on Oct. 14.