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The Dispute Gives Fresh Take on the Battle of the Sexes

Analise Lipari | Tuesday, November 11, 2008

exists, other than your two mysterious caretakers. Then, suddenly, you’re plunged into the outside world, seeing yourself and others for the very first time. What would you do? How would you act? And, as “The Dispute” asks its characters and its audience, which sex might deceive the other first? Who is more prone to adultery?The latest Main Stage show from the Film, Television and Theater department at Notre Dame, Pierre Marivaux’s “The Dispute” is an exercise in experimentation. A wealthy young royal (Kevin Stein) proposes a scenario to a group of friends: Eighteen years before, the same discussion breaks out at his father’s court. The King decides to test the question by raising two babies of each sex in complete isolation, and “The Dispute” details what ensues when those four “experiments” finally meet.Director Siiri Scott and her able-bodied cast do very well with what could feel like dated material. The battle of the sexes is, no doubt, an eternal discussion between women and men. But with a play whose lifetime is more than ten times that of the actors? FTT deserves praise for keeping the material feeling fresh and relevant.The production team for “The Dispute” has transplanted Marivaux’s 1744 French play to a set that feels like it’s straight out of AMC’s “Mad Men,” or maybe a Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedy. “Pillow Talk” could have easily jumped to this stylized, seemingly desert-set building, with angularly constructed stone and steel. The music playing before and after the performance, and at occasional moments during the production, reinforces the scenario, with strains of “Come On-a My House” and “Volare” coming through. It’s an interesting effect. Occasionally the language and the set feel a bit too far apart, but those moments are rare.The actors are clearly well-prepared for what might have been a daunting task. Matt Goodrich and John Maltese are the two male innocents in the king’s experiment, and each succeeds at capturing a blend of physical comedy and eager, goofy masculinity. At one point, Goodrich’s Azor slams into the ground, and you can’t help admiring their commitment to the physicality of their roles. Their exchange when they first meet is a priceless moment. “Do you eat food?” Goodrich asks, hesitant; “Every day,” Maltese emphatically replies. “Awesome!” Agreed.Their female counterparts are both good, as well, and all four succeed with adapting themselves to Marivaux’s adaptation of the commedia dell’arte style. The girls’ obsessions with their own reflections play well for laughs – watch for the scene with a pair of compact mirrors.The play’s play on social and gender dynamics are intriguing for the innocents, their wealthy spectators, and the audience watching “The Dispute” alike. It raises questions about which sex is more guilty for the indiscretions of love, commitment and adultery. At one point, Stephanie Newsome’s Carise, one of the two caretakers of the four innocents, tries to persuade an innocent not to cheat: “Consult your heart! You’ll loathe your infidelity.” Newsom and Edward Velazquez, her male counterpart, are both amusing as the exasperated pair who carry out this great social experiment. The final fate of the quad is interestingly staged, as well. “The Dispute” is surprisingly short, but very well done.If you don’t have an answer in the question of who wins the battle of the sexes, check out “The Dispute.” Visit performingarts.nd.edu for more information.