The setup: A French farce of 1732 by Pierre de Marivaux springs into exuberant life as cross-dressing, thinly disguised identities and a scanty plot serve as a framework for wit, paradoxes, style and excellent acting.
The execution: The graceful set by Matthew Schlief is a variety of topiary, some giant and some merely monumental, that delight the eye and serve admirably as hiding places for eavesdropping or ways to escape unwanted physical approaches. The costumes are colorful, ornate and expensive, and this elegance is echoed in the acting, where in a suitable paradox the lowly are exalted: Though we were robbed of regular Philip Hays' performance as a valet, his understudy, Xzavien Hollins, played the part with bravura energy, great comic timing and nuanced subtlety. He is well-matched by S.A. Rogers as a gardener -- the pair team up as connivers and deceivers with always a hand out for a tip, and their chicanery is a pleasure to observe.
Among the gentry, Pamela Vogel enchants as a stern woman of a certain age becoming intrigued by the prospect of a younger lover -- her performance is subtle and heart-warming. Her sterner brother, played by Thomas Prior, is quite effective as he, too, is pursued by a younger lover, but better diction would be welcome in a comedy of high style. Matt Hune plays a misogynist youth who swiftly learns the error of his ways. He is given little to do, but he does that very well indeed, and looks a bit like the young Olivier -- not a bad look to have. Bree Welch plays a lady-in-waiting and co-conspirator with energy and spirit, and her flirtation with the valet is charming.
The lead role is played by Ivy Castle -- that of a female ruler seeking to right a wrong, who is compelled to masquerade as a man to accomplish her quest. Castle is beautiful with a dazzling smile, moves well and carries the narrative. But she has only a nodding acquaintance with the rich comic possibilities of the role. Her intonation is about the same regardless of content, and I yearned for a different voice and manner when she moved from young woman to pretend young man. The direction by Julia Traber is graceful and eloquent -- even the exits are works of comic art. But Traber might have cajoled, coaxed, flattered or threatened; anything to get a more varied comic performance from Castle. And a stronger voice, and a hint of authority (she is after all ruler of a kingdom), would also have helped.
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The verdict: Like aged wine, this classic comedy makes younger competitors pale by comparison. It is rare, priceless, full-bodied and not to be missed -- one of the great theatrical events of the season. Through Sept. 25, Classical Theatre Company, TBH Center, 333 South Jensen Dr., 713-963-9665.
Editor's note: On the night Art Attack attended, the part normally played by Philip Hays was played by understudy Xzavien Hollins. An earlier version of this article misnamed Hollins.