The Game of Love and Chance is a classic comedy by Pierre Marivaux that was first produced in Paris in 1730. You may have seen it before and are itching to see it again or are about to see it for the first time. You are probably aware that it is on the roster of plays at the Shaw Festival for the current season and do not intend to miss it.
You should see it, but it may not be quite what you expect. Tim Carroll, the Shaw Festival’s Artistic Director, is offering a seriously improvised version of the play which is inventive, unorthodox and hilarious – but bears only partial fidelity to what Marivaux wrote.
Marivaux’s play has seven characters, mostly from commedia dell’arte stock comedy. Silvia, the daughter of the wealthy Orgon is supposed to marry the wealthy Dorante, Dorante and Silvia have never met and he is on his way to visit her. Silvia is understandably nervous about this arranged marriage and wants to make sure she really wants to marry him. To be on the safe side, she arranges to change places with her maid Lisette. She will pretend to be Silvia and let’s see what happens.
Well, Dorante has the same concern, and he changes places his servant Arlequin or Wes (or whatever his name is) and the comedy begins. Orgon and his son Mario are in on the change of identities, and they have no objections.
That is what Marivaux wrote.
At the Shaw Festival eight actors, “The Shaw Festival Ensemble” under the direction of Carroll improvise the plot with hilarious results. The basic plot remains but not the way Marivaux wrote it. Much has changed and what you get depends on the wit, imagination, and inventiveness of the actors. I am reminded of an incident when Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were making one of their movies. The showed total disrespect for the script and at one time one of them quipped to the writer that “if you hear any of your lines, yell Bingo.”
The actors of the Ensemble are, in alphabetical order: Kristopher Bowman, Sochi Fried, Martin Happer, Deborah Hay, Rebecca Northan, Travis Seetoo, Graeme Somerville, Jenny L. Wright. What roles they play is decided before the performance “begins” by rolling dice or whatever comes to mind. It is part of the fun, and the audience is involved in rolling the dice. That presumably means that each actor gets a different role most times.
The play is improvised in the relaxed atmosphere of the Spiegeltent, a tent with a bar and a playing area that provides for laidback performances, crowd participation and resourcefulness by the players. They can improvise, horse around and adlib but keep the essentials of the plot going. The night I saw it Jenny L. Wright played Silvia pretending to be the maid Lisette and Travis Seeto played Dorante pretending to be the servant Arlequin. The randy Lisette was played by Rebecca Northan and the boorish Arlequin was played by Graeme Somerville. Mario, played by Deborah Hay, explained to his father Orgon (Martin Happer) that he is no longer a virgin thanks to Lisette’s largesse. Orgon may have partaken of her largesse or perhaps displayed the same weakness as his son. Kristopher Bowman played the servant.
Some of the humour arose from Marivaux’s plot but as much or more came from the actors’ interaction with the audience or from adlibbing and sharing the fun with a responsive audience.
The costumes for the tomfoolery are designed by Sim Suzer and they looked like eighteenth century non-descript foundation wear. They did the job admirably.
I will settle for giving kudos to the ensemble rather than trying to zero in on individual players. The performance followed the title of the play as the game of improvisation and chance with great success. Carroll deserves huge credit for the idea alone. Rebecca Northan in her first season at the Shaw is credited for her “Improv Coaching.” Judging by the success of the production that seems like a backhanded compliment for a show that is so dependent on improvisation. Alexis Milligan directed movement and the laughter evoked by the actors’ activities may not tell us all that she did.
It is a production worth seeing and enjoying and you can tell your friends that you saw a play by Marivaux.
The Game of Love and Chance by Pierre Marivaux improvised by the Shaw Festival Ensemble continues until October 8, 2023, at the Spiegeltent as part of The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.