What is Trinity Rep up to? Painters show at Rose; punk `Misanthrope'

The New Ehrlich Theatre gussies up Moli`ere's 17th- century farce, `The Misanthrope,' in new duds tr`es `a la mode. Trinity Square Repertory Company, on the other hand, has been more concerned with undressing than dressing. The result -- a season that more often than not seems to have been preoccupied with matters of the bed, rather than those of the heart, soul, or mind.

With its new production of ``The Country Wife,'' the Trinity Square Repertory Company (in Providence, R.I.) appears to be continuing its sad obsession with sex.

Out of the last six productions, four have had bedding someone as their main theme. In last summer's '60s farce, ``What the Butler Saw,'' a doctor goes to deranged lengths to keep secret his attempted seduction of a prospective secretary. In ``Passion Play,'' a man's desire for a young temptress destroys his 25-year marriage. ``Tartuffe'' works himself into a quivering snit of lust. ``The Country Wife'' has a man-about-town start rumors that he's a eunuch. Husbands trust him. Wives flock to him. Mayhem ensues. William Wycherley's famous Restoration comedy, first produced in 1675, is set by director Tunc Yalman in the jazzy 1920s -- an era, the program notes tell us, similar to the Restoration's wild abandon after a period of repression and colorlessness. (As was, in some ways, the '60s England of ``Butler.'')

Despite the merits of these plays (``Tartuffe,'' for example, says something substantial about religious hypocrisy and was a wonderful production to boot) the choice of so many sexual farces for the same season -- and the decision to make them even more salacious than the texts specify -- seems to be pandering to titillation-hungry audiences. The plays themselves sound the dangers of unbridled lust. But the various directors make it fun and alluring. Cheap shots abound, usually at the expense of women.

Trinity is a respected company; its social conscience is strong, and its actors are talented and have a well-honed unity. The production values are high: the Art Deco sets and slinky costumes for ``Country Wife'' were dazzling. But when so often innocence and fidelity are ridiculed, when the marriages in the plays either break up, fester, or play dead, and when people regularly get fondled or hide in closets, one wonders what artistic director Adrian Hall wants to convey about the human condition.

Unfortunately, Trinity is choosing to avoid doing what the theater can do best -- show us not only where we are but how to get out of there, and lead us to a higher vision of humanity. When Trinity starts to value its ability to provide that service, the result could be magnificent.

This exhibition of six Boston area painters, which opened recently at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, is appropriately named. It's a painter's show, comprised of artists struggling for individual solutions to the basic issues of color, form, brushstroke, etc. There's something heartening about this kind of endeavor. It's as if the difficulties of painting, which grow increasingly challenging in our post-modern era (in which painting is sometimes thought of as having exhausted its resources), are in fact a seduction which artists (thank goodness) cannot refuse. Nine years ago, under the enlightened leadership of director Carl Belz, the Rose initiated an annual exhibition of emerging artists. In the process Mr. Belz himself has emerged as a curator of foresight and sensitivity. Many of Boston's nationally recognized young painters, such as John Imber and John McNamara, premi`ered at the Rose.

Of the six artists included, Miriam Hitchcock, John Tracey, and Anne Neely offer provocative, convincing expressions. Of the other three, Rona Conti and John Murray feel overly derivative, while Robert Hooper's abstract forms layered on translucent washes of color are sophisticated, yet lack authority.

Hitchcock and Tracey both hover between abstraction and representation. Hitchcock employs familiar symbols -- letters and numbers -- which she inverts or reverses, placing them in complicated interlocking planes. Denying their literal meaning, she converts them into the language of painting -- of color, line, and space -- thereby creating a new visual synthesis. More classically modernist, Tracey tackles such ideas as the flatness of the canvas, the limits of the rectangle, and the sheer beauty of paint. He organizes his large works around a central arched window or portico shape, whose illusionary depths are ironically denied by the lush attention this painter gives to color and surface.

Neely, a landscape artist seemingly inspired by Van Gogh, shows animated views of the Italian and American Southwest countryside. Like the other fine works on view, their spirited gesture evince an attitude toward artmaking as an impassioned activity. In a word, ardent.

``The Misanthrope'' -- and Moli`ere -- deserve better than this. That is not to say that the South End's New Ehrlich Theatre should not be commended for tackling this densely textured comic icon of classic French literature. But what an audience gets is little better than a staged reading -- despite efforts to present a trendy, modern-dress version of the play.

There is much more heart, soul, and mind to ``The Misanthrope'' than is apparent here. And it takes more than polished actors who trippingly deliver Richard Wilbur's fine translation to do the play justice. It takes delving beneath the torrent of words to discover the play's deeper human and philsophical core. While we laugh at Alceste's ludicrous rejection of the human race in his quest for integrity, we should be made to feel the anguish of his hopeless devotion to the false Celimene. Directors Neil Armstrong -- playing Alceste -- and Richard Toma fail to make us care.

The actors, for the most part, have charm, and there are moments when they strike a comic chord just right. The worst flaw of this production is that sometimes, as in the case of the raucous, one-dimensional performance of Margaret Ann Brady as Arsino"e, you can't understand the thinking behind the lines. The production falls into the classic trap of doing the classics: The performance simply doesn't get off the page.

Mari Jones as the pure-hearted Eliante stands out in her quiet honesty. Jim Quinn has so appealing a stage presence that you would like to see him given direction with more depth. And Gail Shayna Newburg's gum-chewing punk of a housemaid -- complete with Walkman -- is very funny. Ends April 6.

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