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Venice Preserved

The afternoon of the opening of Venice Preserv'd underscored more than usual the contrast between the street scene surrounding the Pearl Theatre and the scenes from a long ago past brought to life on its stage. Some sort of Punk-Isn't Dead convention filled St. Mark's Place and many surrounding streets with young men and women with spiked hair in a rainbow of psychedelic shades. While playwrights, like outrageous fashions, often fade into oblivion, Thomas Otway's most famous play remains well worth seeing, especially as lovingly produced by the intrepid Pearl.

In a nutshell this is what Venice Preserv'd is about: A rich and powerful 17th Century Venetian politician rejects his young son-in-law who then joins his best friend in a plot against the politician and his cronies, only to discover that the leader of the friend's group isn't above seducing his wife. Our hero faced with this evidence that the cause he's pledged himself to support would be led by a man as potentially corrupt as the entrenched senators, tries to strike a bargain with the politicians. He'll help to destroy the plot provided the plotters, including his friend, are not punished. The senators promptly agree, and as promptly reneg on their promise.

If you're thinking that this sounds more like a story of political intrigue and betrayal than a restoration romance, you're right. While the action revolves around the young Venetian noble Jaffeir's passionate love for the rich Senator Priuli's daughter Belvidera and his equally passionate friendship with his revolutionary friend Pierre, the play which originally bore the double title Venice Preserv'd; or, A Plot Discovered. is primarily about political intrigue and betrayal. The specific plot of the play is an attempt to overthrow the "factious, giddy and divided Senate" that has contributed to a generally sorry state of affairs in Venice. Otway's real inspiration was the Machiavellian atmosphere that pervaded his own country, England, where plots proliferated among the Whigs and Tories . And as his exploitation of political intrigue resonated with English audiences when it was first produced in 1682, so it continues to ring true more than 300 years later, and bring to mind counterparts in many countries. Who can't think of at least one leader like Renault, driven by honorable motives but touched by "that canker-worm call'd letchery?" We may not identify the foolish old senator, Antonio, with the Earl of Shaftesbury, the leader of the Whig opposition who was the object of Otway's satirical thrust, but we wouldn't be too hard-pressed to find someone making the most of his title and money. . .nor has the taste for a bit of S & M disappeared in our enlightened sexually free society.

As usual, the Pearl Theatre Company, has mounted a class A production. With the exception of some occasional bumps along the path of delivering the verse text, the cast is generally very solid. It includes a number of attractive guest actors--notably David Adkins as Jaffeir, Joey Collins as Pierre, Hope Chernov as Belvidera and Bernard K. Addison as Renault--as well as such Pearl regulars as Robin Leslie Brown in the role of Aquilina, Robert Hock as Antonio and John Wylie as Priuli. As is usual these days, even with the generously-sized casts of this company's productions, there is some double billing. Whether intentional or not, we thought Bernard K. Addison's final and secondary role as a priest an aptly understated commentary on the duality of all of Otway's characters. Robert Joel Schwartz's set evokes a sense of seeing the figures in a Venetian painting literally stepping out of the canvas to turn into flesh and blood before our eyes. Rich Cole, the director, skillfully moves these figures from scene to scene and into a particularly moving and powerful concluding tableau, which also showcases lighting designer Stephen Petrilli's skill in bringing his craft to a play written long before this was a theatrical function. Murell Horton's costumes round out the general excellence of the production values.

Before closing this review it's worth noting that Otway who was considered by many as the playwright to inherit Shakespeare's mantle, is memorable not just for the play reviewed here and The Orphan but because those plays pulled the playwrighting of his time out of a period of extreme superficiality. After being banned altogether during thereign of the Puritans, drama re-emerged during the reign of King Charles II but without any depth of purpose or emotion. Otway, spurred by his unrequited passion for Mrs. Barry (who played Bellvidera, the part he wrote for her) and his reaction to the murky political atmosphere around him, set a new standard that marked a general upturn in the quality of playwring.

Addendum: To date, I've never missed a performance I've scheduled to see and review. Neither have I arrived late (how else could latecomers rank in my top three pet peeves about audiences?). In fact, I usually arrive a half hour early so that I can get the feel of the set and read through my press kit. I'm ashamed to admit that with Venice Preserv'd I broke my perfect record. Instead of checking my calendar, I arrived with time to spare for a 3 p.m. matinee, but too late to catch the beginning of what was in fact a 2 p.m. matinee. Fortunately, I'd re-read my Modern Library edition of the play a week earlier, so I wasn't too much at sea about the plot. Interestingly, my companion, who wasn't quite as well prepared, told me at the intermission that it took him only a few minutes to get "into it" and understand perfectly what was going on. That's not to say both of us wouldn't have enjoyed the performance even more had we been there to witness the initial interchange between Priuli and Jaffire. However, our experience should prove to those apprehensive about difficulties in keeping up with who's who in an old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger in verse form, that it's not at all a difficult to comprehend theatrical experience. --e.s.

If you'd like to know more about the ins and outs of a repertory company in general and about this company which has become one of the Big Apple's cultural landmarks, you might want to read David Hapgood's book about the Pearl. It was published three years ago but is still available on line. Year of the Pearl : The Life of a New York Repertory Company.

©right February 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp. Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from

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