It’s 1661 and Louis XIV has been in Power in name only since the age of five. The France he has inherited is rocked with scandal when, 13 years later after the death of the monarch-behind-the monarch Cardinal Mazarin—who was possibly also the lover of the young “Sun King’s” mother Queen Anne—Louis decides to take over the throne for real.
The Power in focus here, as well as the corruption and sense of entitlement that seems to naturally come with it, is not unlike the political miasma of today and you can bet British playwright Nick Dear is one guy intent on showing us how little has changed in three-and-a-half centuries of mass abuse in the name of personal gain. “There is famine,” Louis (Steve Coombs) declares as a viable reason for him to siege control and order an audit of the imperial coffers to find out what his regime has done to help tear his country asunder, but his mother Anne (Casey Kramer) only snaps back at his foolishness: “Famine, yes, but there is no dissent.”
Although Dear’s Power is set within the silly excesses of the era in question, chockfull of exaggerated manners, elaborate powdered wigs, and ribbon-festooned velvet finery surely worthy of Moliere (giving costumer Laura Brody a chance to show her considerable mettle on the small Theatre Banshee stage), his grandly affected characters speak through the fluttering of their lace handkerchiefs in a very contemporary style, not unlike Christopher Hampton’s equally decadent and verbally juicy Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
Coombs has been a wonderful asset to LA theatre since his debut in Michael Michetti’s adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray at the Boston Court last season and once again he delivers a fine performance as Louis, a young man obviously torn between decency and the temptations not only of wealth and influence but of his own raging hormones. To conceal his dalliances with Henriette (Lesley Kirsten Smith), the horny untouched wife of his mincingly queeny prince of a brother Philippe (played without as net by David Pavao), the conspirators invent an affair with one of her ladies-in-waiting (Andra Carlson), a deception that turns into a love worthy of Romeo and Juliet, something of which the dashingly soft-spoken Coombs is quite familiar these days.
Kramer is sardonic perfection as the ballsy Queen Mother, a role that sadly has no place to go in the scheme of things, and both Matt Foyer as Fouquet, the flashy financial advisor and resident moneylender to the throne, and Jason Tendell as Colbert, the dour royal numbers-cruncher intent on exposing Fouquet as a cooker of the royal books, are excellent as well.
Power has a lot going for it but, under the surprisingly tepid direction of McKerrin Kelly, it also misses some golden visual and corporeal opportunities to shock while offering hilarious stage pictures. This is not at all aided by Arthur McBride’s ill-advised choices as set designer, his constructions, though beautifully painted, as sparse and unwieldy as Brody’s costumes are ornate. An omnipresent revolving center flat, ploddingly turned by often observable stagehands in badly contrasting modernday “blacks,” only then reveal a new chair or bench or painted tree slapped against it, distracting from the smoothness of Dark’s lightness of vision.
But the play’s the thing here and as usual, Theatre Banshee presents Power with style and genuine panache. Despite its flaws, Kelly’s first-rate cast rises above the lack of directorial cohesion to collaborate with the brash and crafty Dear, finding subtle but rich humor and enormous irony in a story which, in the hands of another less colorful playwright, could be just another desiccated historical drama.
Dark never wavers in his uncanny ability to balance the ridiculously embroidered royal dandies in Power with the Armani-clad political hucksters and mendacious powerbrokers of our millennium, all the while making his audience laugh at how stupid we’ve been over the ensuing centuries to let the same corruption from those in positions of leadership overwhelm our common sense time and time again.
Simply, our current “courtiers” such as the late Kenneth Lay, that anti-Christ Mr. Chaney, and the entire oil-glutted Bush family (with the matriarchal “let-them-eat-cake” Barbara as the latter-day Queen Anne), would be right at home reinventing and reinterpreting ethics in King Louis’ court.
Power plays through Aug. 19 at Theatre Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia Bl., Burbank; for tickets, call 818.846.5323.