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In The Dispute, a New Theater Company Launches with a New-School French Farce

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The Dispute opens with a seemingly interminable cocktail party for the audience. The fourth-floor ballroom of the Centene Center is softly lit, there are no chairs and the cast members meander through the crowd offering drinks and engaging in conversation with the willing, while a man in a powdered wig and brocade coat mutters angrily into a live microphone. It was torture for at least one of us (I'm at my best in solitude, not gatherings of strangers) but it certainly set the tone for an evening that the vast majority found enjoyable.

That man on the mic is Jeff Skoblow, who plays the role of Mssr. Monsieur, an enlightened French writer who feels betrayed by his poetic muse and is now incapable of further prose. After the cast assembles two semi-circular rows of chairs and invites us to sit (on opening night, it resulted in a bit of a log-jam), Monsieur takes the floor. He explains his plan to determine whether man or woman invented infidelity and looses four teenagers who were raised in isolation. Through their interaction, he promises, we'll discover the answer. Then a Dandy Warhols or Francois Couperin (I'm unfamiliar with both) song kicks off at an incredible volume, and a dance number breaks out.

The Dispute is the inaugural production of YoungLiars, which comprises several former members of the defunct HotCity Theatre. The play is an interpretation of La Dispute, written by Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux in the 18th century and adapted by Maggie Conroy and director Chuck Harper using a "semi-literal Google translation" and several texts on etiquette from various centuries. This new company is "committed to creating unique inter-disciplinary theatre performances," according to the program, but I found the regular theater portion of the evening to be more compelling than the bells and whistles. The frequent outbursts of music and dance are repetitive and go on for too long. They also interrupt the flow of what is a very funny and well-acted story, detracting more than they add.

Mitch Eagles and Paul Cereghino play the male teenagers Azor and Mesrin, while Maggie Conroy and Marcy Wiegert are the young ladies Egle and Adine. When Azor and Egle meet it's love at first sight — but when Egle sees her own reflection for the first time, it's also love at first sight. Mesrin and Adine's relationship follows a similar course. Once the couples are mixed, infidelity is not far behind.

Both sets of couples are excellent, singly and as a whole. Conroy and Wiegert posture and spar like exotic fighting fish when they first meet — each believes herself to be the most beautiful creature in the world, and evidence to the contrary is quite unappreciated. When Eagles and Cereghino bump into each other, though, they embark on a beautiful friendship, delighted by the discovery of an emotion like romantic love but somehow different.

Julie Layton and Ben Watts are Carise and Mesrou, the long-married couple who raised the children and observe them fumbling through love. Both roles appear non-essential, but the couple takes control of the action near the end with a floor show that left several audience members in tears.

Anna Skidis Vargas and Jonah Walker play a pair of lab-coated assistants who fight a rolling battle through the center of the play. Only when a spotlight shines on them do they break it up, and like a pair of third-graders, they stand stock-still to recite passages on dating, social dancing and the proper roles for women and men. These passages underline how foolish carefully-orchestrated social interaction between the sexes looks to succeeding generations. The expectations society placed on young women in 1933 sound just as ridiculous today as raising four teenagers in isolation to figure out which sex is more prone to infidelity.

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