Sue Rees's white, Orwellian set sits in pristine stillness before The Dispute begins, an engineered paradise unspoiled by the folly of man. In Neil Bartlett's new adaptation of Pierre Marivaux's 1744 play, the National Asian-American Theater Company and director Jean Randich show us a connection between this artificial Eden and reality TV. This unique perspective propels an acrobatic production into the upper echelon of high-style reinterpretations of classic texts. The Dispute concerns the fruition of an 18-year experiment dealing with the mechanics of love and original sin. The Prince decides to woo Hermiane by settling a longstanding debate over which sex is the first to falter in love. Conveniently, the Prince's father had had the same dispute with his lover years before, so he constructed an isolated environment where four orphans, two men and two women, were each raised alone in separate areas. The Prince releases the childlike foundlings, now grown, into his manufactured Eden so that he and his lady can witness both the purest form of love and the original romantic betrayal, as the four interact with other humans for the first time.
Randich and her first-rate designers present Marivaux's text convincingly as a work of science fiction. The costumes, shrewdly crafted by Kirian Lanseth-Schmidt, suggest a carefully constructed, sterile environment. The notion of using the scientific method to explore the highly irrational behavior people display while in love is both humorous and profound. In keeping with this, Rees has devised a set that equally captures the energetic design of a playground jungle gym and the austere ambience of a hospital. Robert Murphy's sound design punctuates the institutional mood with some effectively shrill alarms and whistles.
It is the gymnastic staging and the streamlined concept that give the production its life. The characters are seen hanging up and down, climbing, and, most important, playing. Randich has invigorated the centuries-old text with a stylish simplicity that captures the characters' youthfulness as they play their way through their first love affairs. The voyeuristic nature of an experiment like this validates her assessment in the production notes that this is an "18th-century reality show." Stephen Pertrilli intensifies the vitality of Randich's staging with pleasant contrasts of colors and funky MTV lighting.
Thankfully, the cast matches the concept with intensity and vigor. As the four romantic leads, Jennifer Chang, Alexis Camins, Olivia Oguma, and Lanny Joon exhibit copious amounts of energy and commitment to their roles as innocents. As they discover things as obvious as their reflections and the anatomical differences between them, all exhibit a believable, and endearing, naïveté. Jennifer Ikeda and Alfredo Narciso, as Hermiane and the Prince, both display their characters' higher-class status well and even throw in a touch of humanity here and there. Ikeda's initial facial reaction to the Prince's project seems to be the one time anyone ever questions the morality of raising four children in isolation. Mia Katigbak and Mel Duane Gionson play the children's caretakers and provide a strong, logical center in the form of wry comic relief.
The only misstep occurs at the end, when Meslis and Dina (played well, albeit briefly, by Claro de los Reyes and Annabel La Londe) suddenly emerge and seemingly refute the entire premise—that betrayal in love is inevitable. These two new characters love each other unconditionally, but whether they were raised together or separately isn't fully explained. Soon after their arrival, a quick wrap-up from Hermiane and the Prince suggests that the whole experiment was inconclusive, and the lights go down. All of this is presented to the audience in what felt like less than three minutes. Such an abrupt conclusion may leave some audience members cold or asking, "Wait ... what happened?"
But the all too brief ending is forgivable in light of the other merits of this wonderfully conceived production. The Dispute speaks to the voyeur in all of us, cynically concluding that both men and women are destined to fail in love at times. Conversely, it presents an optimistic story about the pure, scientific origins of affection and truthfully captures the enthusiasm of newfound love.