There are some plays that just don't travel well, through time or space. It could be that all of Belgian Nobel laureate Maurice Maeterlinck's romantic and deeply psychological investigations, written around the turn of the last century, fall into this category. Or maybe it's just that here and now is not the place for his seldom performed Monna Vanna. Although the long-winded historical fantasy is certainly eloquent and often fascinating, its only American performance in the last 100 years doesn't give audiences nearly enough to grab on to.
Set in politically torn Italy at the end of the 15th century, Maeterlinck's play focuses on a battle between the Pisans and the Florentines. Pisa is under siege, and Guido, the city's hot-headed commander (Stephan Smith Collins), gets bad news from his dad (Robin Field), captured but recently released by the Florentine leader: The only way Pisa and its people will survive is if Guido hands over his gorgeous wife, Giovanna, aka Monna Vanna (Emily Wing). Naturally this is a no-go for Guido, but Giovanna is all for saving the city, even at the expense of her honor. What follows is spelled out in a lengthy "labyrinth of words": the conflict between a controlling husband and heretofore obedient wife, a father's seeming betrayal of his son, and a woman's ability to find her own strength and make her own choices. And on we go, until we meet the supposedly barbaric enemy, Prinzivalle (Bryant Romo), and find that he is very different from the "image of a man painted by those that fear him."
So Monna Vanna becomes an extended exploration of the nature of love, ownership, and truth. Joel Marquez directs a company of accomplished actors who get points for clarity; they handle the language well for the most part (Field is particularly notable in what might be the play's most thankless role), and Marquez's simple staging is certainly respectful of the material. Joel Bryant and Daniel Jensen complete the ensemble cast, each playing two roles. Aside from lovely costumes by LizBeth Lucca and Sarah Moore, this is a low-tech presentation, and the director has chosen to spotlight only the words and the actors. However, some performances don't find many of the emotional subtleties in the text, and the production lacks a unified playing style. This means that at the end of nearly three hours in the theatre, we're left with not all that much.
Presented by Quent Cordair Fine Art Productions at the Stella Adler Theatre,
6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.
Thu.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Nov. 29-Dec. 16.
(323) 960-4446. www.monna-vanna.com.