Games of Love and War
American Players Theatre opened its 40th season on Saturday with a beautiful indoor production of The Man of Destiny, a rarely seen comedy about strategy, power and manipulation by George Bernard Shaw. The witty, cerebral sparring match features uniformly strong performances from its four-person cast.
Destiny, which will be performed in the Touchstone through Sept. 21, is set at the end of the 18th century. It is a verbal and strategic fight to the finish — with a dash of sexual tension — involving a young Napoleon Bonaparte (a measured Charles Pasternack, making his APT debut) and a “strange lady” (a mesmerizing Cassia Thompson, returning after apprenticing last season) who cross paths one evening in an Italian inn.
Directed with a light touch by APT regular James Boehn, the battle of wits is classic Shaw. It includes conversations about the cost of war, the imbalance of power between men and women, the inconvenience of morality for some classes, and the art of seduction. It is also a pleasant reminder that even a soldier who sets his sights on becoming emperor of the world can be outfoxed by an intellect hiding in plain sight.
This fictional encounter was written nearly a century after Napoleon seized power in France. But with hindsight, the audience knows where all these grand plans finally led.
With additional text created by James DeVita and many of Shaw’s epic stage directions repurposed to be spoken lines, the 90-minute play begins — oddly enough — with a cooking lesson. Affable Italian innkeeper Guiseppe (James Ridge) demonstrates the proper way to prepare risotto, with wine, butter, parmesan, bone marrow and a long-practiced technique to actually outsmart the rice into giving up its creamy, delicious center. (Keep that analogy in mind for later.) Like a co-conspirator, Ridge then introduces the audience to the pensive soldier who will eat the dish — a French officer who has taken over his tavern, covering a large wooden table with maps, letters and other documents that will inform his strategy in the present war, fighting with Austria over territory in northern Italy.
But it turns out Napoleon doesn’t want risotto; he wants blood. To write with, to win the war with, to rule all of Europe with. He declares that the blood of others has no worth, except as a means to an end. And his patience is tried further when his bumbling lieutenant (a convincingly gullible and inept Josh Krause) arrives at the inn, minus the packet of letters he was entrusted to deliver. Krause explains at length that he was taken advantage of by a thief preying on his better nature, who also robbed him of his pistols, his horse and his dignity.
Strangely enough, the female lodger who arrived the previous night bears a striking resemblance to the boy who swindled the lieutenant. Seeing through the ruse as quickly as the audience does, Pasternack’s Napoleon embarks on a cat-and-mouse game to force the stunning noblewoman (Thompson) to surrender his stolen papers. What follows is an intellectual chess match, where each player seizes and then loses the upper hand in turn.
Shaw’s logic is dizzying at times, so it is a credit to the actors that the tension remains high and the arguments clear throughout the play. Pasternack paints Napoleon with great intelligence but limited patience — his emotions frequently breaking through his otherwise composed exterior. Gloating too soon, he is continually fascinated and exasperated by the confident woman before him. Thompson holds her own, employing feminine sighs and false praise one minute, and calculated cunning the next. Watching the pair argue is like seeing two masters fence — attacking, retreating, regrouping and restrategizing on the fly.
Scenic designer Nayna Ramey frames the argument in a rustic kitchen and vineyard in the colors of Italian soil, setting off the soldiers’ red, blue and white uniforms. They stand in contrast to the voluminous gold striped gown worn by Thompson, complete with pannier side hoops and an elegant floating train, designed by Robert Morgan.
Although it’s ultimately unclear whether there is a winner and loser in the dueling parties — or if the battle ends in a draw — it is a fun and frenetic argument, performed by well-matched players.