restricted access Le Cid directed by Peter Dobbins (review)
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Review of Le Cid by the Storm Theatre and the Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, at the Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame, Manhattan. Directed by Peter Dobbins. 4 January - 9 February, 2013

In a diary entry for December 1, 1662, Samuel Pepys remarked upon a visit to the Cockpit Theater in London: "I saw 'The Valiant Cid' acted, a play I have read with great delight, but is a most dull thing acted." The Restoration English stage history of Le Cid - Pierre Corneille's seventeenth-century French masterpiece - suggests that Pepys was not alone in his judgment. Corneille's impact on English theatrical culture was notable; his style was widely admired by the newly restored Francophilic Stuart court, his plays - with their rhyming couplets, magnanimous heroes, and conflicts of love and honor - were largely influential on early heroic drama, and his method of self-analyzing his own productions inspired Dryden's ground-breaking work as a dramatic critic. At the time, however, there were very few actual performances of Le Cid, and its English adaptations, such as Colley Cibber's Ximena (1712), tended to be flops. Increasingly for Restoration and eighteenth-century audiences, Corneille's neoclassicism became associated with a lack of passion and a stiflingly formal style. The legacy of these indictments may account for Le Cid's virtual disappearance from the stage in more recent times as well, but its revival in 2013 at the Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame in upper Manhattan bravely put such stereotypes to the test. While this joint production by the Storm Theatre and the Blackfriars Repertory Theatre did not consistently deliver on emotional impact, it was fast-paced, engaging, and thought-provoking - a far cry from Pepys' "dull thing."

Originally produced in 1637 at the Théâtre du Marais in Paris, Le Cid was an immediate commercial success. But it also propelled Corneille into a famous quarrel with Cardinal Richelieu and the Académie Française - the state's governing body in charge of policing cultural activity - who denounced the play on a number of counts: its violation of moral decorum, its occasional disregard for the classical unities, and its ambiguous designation as a tragicomedy. Set in eleventh-century Spain, Corneille's plot hangs on a series of irresolvable conflicts between love and duty. The noble Don Rodrigue (Jeff [End Page 91] Kline) loves Chimène (Meaghan Bloom Fluitt), but when a court feud between their families forces him to kill her father, the Count de Gormas (Brian J. Coffey), Chimène is honor-bound to seek her lover's death. Matters are further complicated when Rodrigue's defeat of an invading Moorish army elevates him to the role of national savior, inducing the king Don Fernand (Spencer Aste) to grant him the military title of The Cid and to persuade Chimène to end her quest for personal vengeance. In refusing to reconcile with Rodrigue, Chimène finds herself increasingly isolated from the other characters, the lone representative of a feudal sensibility under attack by a centralizing state. Director Peter Dobbins emphasized the conflict between medieval and Renaissance worldviews; the play's set design - stone walls and pillars reminiscent of a Gothic dungeon - purposefully contrasted with the glitzy Elizabethan-style costumes sported by the cast. Moreover, Corneille's penchant for symmetrical pairings and oppositions (the production used the 2009 English verse translation by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Wilbur, replete with rhyming couplets and stichomythic exchanges) was mirrored in a cross-shaped stage on which the actors and actresses faced off and which was symbolically suggestive of two worlds colliding, a modern and an archaic.

Against the backdrop of sociopolitical conflict, however, the production's real interest lay with the internal conflict of characters struggling between individual desire and gloire, a term that for Cornelian theater denotes the development of one's self-image in relation to one's public reputation. Kline's portrayal of Rodrigue spoke to a divided sense of identity; his thoroughly monotone inflection and piercing, stoic gaze at once embodied total self-control in the face of devastating circumstances while also evoking a latent tension to his character that threatened at any...