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Getting to the Heart of Marivaux's Mirth

For actors in the 18th century comedy 'Changes of Heart,' it's a full-body workout, engaging the mind and the extremities.

August 11, 1996|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

Mary Lou Rosato and Kathryne Dora Brown, two of the co-stars of the acclaimed "Changes of Heart" at the Mark Taper Forum, had just met Warren Beatty.

It took place on their first day off since the show opened. They interviewed for roles in the same movie--without either knowing beforehand that the other would be there. The next day, they wouldn't disclose the film's name, but Rosato couldn't resist dropping Beatty's name as one of the people they met. "He's the most beautiful man," Rosato said with a sigh.

"Wait a minute, what about me?" asked their play's co-star John Michael Higgins with mock petulance, as he joined Rosato and Brown for a three-way interview.

"You're my tenderest love," Rosato replied with a reassuring gesture.

It was an exchange reminiscent of those in "Changes of Heart," Stephen Wadsworth's adaptation of Marivaux's 1723 comedy "The Double Inconstancy."

Higgins plays Harlequin, whose thwarted love for young Silvia--a country lass played by Brown--is superseded when he comes under the influence of the masterful Flaminia, an accomplice of the prince, played by Rosato.

Higgins and Rosato played the same roles in Wadsworth's staging at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., in 1994. Brown joined the cast at the Taper--her first job on an Actors' Equity contract.

When Brown started working on the play, she recalled, she "was terrified that they would hate the new kid. So I walked into the room, and everyone was hugging and eating cake."

"We surround ourselves with friendly objects," Rosato said.

Still, when Brown started hearing many references to the play's "shapes," she wondered, "Oh God, can I make the shapes?" What exactly are the shapes? "You're not allowed to know," she told an interviewer, feigning severity.

Rosato and Higgins jumped in to attempt an explanation. Rosato referred to "the physical language" that Wadsworth and company have developed "as a way of working that's very much in keeping with what we know of the period."

"But we're not historians," Higgins interjected. "We're not trying to archive. We must make it alive for modern audiences tonight." The principle behind the show's "shapes," he said, is that "the gesture, the vocal apparatus and the emotion are the same thing. Hopefully, when we make a shape that looks odd, it will still be organic."

"Americans rely on naturalistic theater as the truth," Rosato said. "But we're intrepid in exploring another kind of truth."

"We have all these sails," Higgins said. "Generally American theaters use only one sail. But this play is a full-mast ship. I have to use everything I have, all the time."

For example, "if my hand is in the wrong place, two moments later I'll miss a laugh, because my arm didn't take the proper journey. This play requires too much for me to leave anything behind in the dressing room."

The words are as challenging as the gestures. "We use shall," Rosato said. "We don't use a lot of contractions. We say a lot of $20 words. Some of them are $50 words. I say 'rapacious' in this show and it gets a laugh!"

"I love 'flibbertigibbet,' " Brown said.

"This play is extremely eloquent on its own," Higgins said. "We are its speakers. We don't layer it with ideas. We give it access to as much of ourselves, expressively, as we can. I have to make sure Harlequin has my full attention. He will do the rest."

With period comedy, "it's so easy to just say, 'Haul out the fans,' " Rosato said.

Or, for revisionist interpretations, "the turtlenecks and the political slogans," Higgins added.

But "Changes of Heart," as its title implies, is much more complex. "So many different feelings come through," Brown said. "It's not just laughing or crying."

"It's this crazy castle of bittersweetnesses and poignancies," Higgins said. "It doesn't pat you on the head."

"It doesn't manipulate you," Brown added.

Nor does the cast feel manipulated by their auteur-like director, Wadsworth. "He's one of the great diplomats," Rosato said. "He makes everyone feel wanted."

"He's a perfect adult," Higgins said. "He's not Daddy or a sex object. I've worked with manipulative directors and at the end, I wanted to leap for their throats."

"Sometimes I pull back on the bridle," Rosato said, "but he's always right, darn it."

"He casts carefully," Higgins said, "then he amplifies these odd characters into this world that he sees. He has a party, but it's carefully controlled."

Control is good, they swear. "Actors are most like children in that they crave boundaries," Higgins said.

"Put me in the playpen," Rosato said with a laugh.

The Taper playpen is different from the proscenium stage of the McCarter, where Rosato and Higgins earlier did the play. "Baldly comic stuff is too invasive" on the Taper's thrust stage, Higgins said.

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