Verse crazy

“You have ewes, I have rams. Should we not couple flocks — in epigrams?”

The Metromaniacs: a Gordian Knot of entanglements, mistaken identities, and reversals.
  • The Metromaniacs: a Gordian Knot of entanglements, mistaken identities, and reversals.

Voltaire’s most recent biographer, Roger Pearson, doesn’t mention the embarrassing Antoinette Malcrais de la Vigne incident. When her poems appeared in the Mercure de France in 1729, she became the rage of Paris. The literati praised “la muse bretonne.” The author of Candide wrote an ecstatic verse tribute to her in Mercure. Well, guess what: La belle Antoinette was a he. When no one would publish his poems, Paul Desforges-Maillard opted for a female pseudonym.

The biographer also doesn’t mention Alexis Piron’s La Metromanie. The 1738 farce is based on Voltaire’s case of ga-ga mistaken identity. In the play, all of Paris has gone “verse crazy,” scribbling an eclogue or sweating out a sestina. It’s obvious that Damis, who falls head over hindmost for a mysterious poetess, is Voltaire. Rampant, headlong love skewers his aesthetic tastes. After attending a performance, Voltaire wrote: “I have seen la piromanie [pyro-mania]. It has no spirit, no beautiful verse, and is not an estimable work in any sense.”

Were a lesser poet than David Ives to translate it into English, the judgment would still stand. The play’s a Gordian Knot of entanglements, mistaken identities, and reversals. Ives, author of All in the Timing and “translaptations” of The School for Lies and The Heir Apparent, must have visions of rhyming couplets wading through his reveries. The Metromaniacs, currently at the Old Globe, turns Piron’s “spiritless” farce into a feeding frenzy of language.

Ives’s pseudo-poets have a “metromania” for the rustic clichés of pastoral poetry. Someone suggests an “Ode to Livestock.” Another courts his lady: “You have ewes, I have rams. Should we not couple flocks — in epigrams?”

James Noone’s set foregrounds the bucolic invasion. He plunks a forest inside an elegant 18th-century French salon. The trees, tall as the glass doors on both sides, are flats for a play within the play. The explanation makes sense, though the stage picture remains counterintuitive.

Ives also invades his stately iambics with contemporary slang. The failed poet Francalou wants to arouse daughter Lucille from a verse-besotted haze. When we first see her, she tilts her head and twirls a curl and fogs “what...ever.”

Damis falls for the poet Meriadec de Peauduncqville — for her words, that is, published in the Parnassus journal. He’s never seen her. She lives in far-off Brittany — peaudunc — to which a wag opines: that’s the “outer sticks,” where “everyone carries Brittany spears!” Damis swears he can read her heart on the page.

The French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve famously said, “The style is the man.” In loud and subtle ways, The Metromaniacs begs to differ: the style may not be the man — or the woman.

Complications ensue, then multiply, then proliferate. Everyone becomes someone else. At one point Lisette, a maid, plays Lucille, her mistress, and therefore, in the eyes of some, also the mysterious poetess Meriadec. That’s three in one, which makes her a whole new “phylum.”

The language dazzles throughout. Ives has written such a tour de force that even the groaners sound classy. The play, however, is an almost endless maze. The parts are more interesting than the whole.

On opening night, as if eager to move things along, the Globe cast belted lines begging for nuance, and pushed the farce with a heavy hand. The production entertains. Dina Thomas (the savvy Lisette), Christian Conn (Damis’s monologue about a playwright at his world premiere), and Murell Horton’s gorgeous 18th-century costumes see to that. But under Michael Kahn’s direction, Metromaniacs became more of a visual display than a 12-course feast of words.

The Metromaniacs

The Metromaniacs, by David Ives

Directed by David Ives; cast: Benjamin Cole, Christian Conn, Cary Donaldson, Peter Kybart, Michael Goldstrom, Adam Lefevre, Amelia Pedlow, Connor Sullivan, Dina Thomas; scenic design, James Noone; costumes, Murrell Horton; lighting, Mark McCullough; sound, Matt Tierney; original music, Adam Nernick

Playing through March 6; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. theoldglobe.org

Years ago, I attended the funeral of a young, African-American man named Kenny. An A student in high school, he was headed to Loyola University in the fall with a full scholarship in journalism. That summer, Kenny got caught in a rip current and drowned in the Pacific. He was 18. The question “Why Kenny?” will haunt me forever.

“Why Tray Thompson?” haunts Kimber Lee’s Brownsville Song (b-side for Tray), currently at Moxie Theatre. The 18-year-old was a potential scholarship student, Golden Gloves boxer, and a dynamo always moving forward. On a Brooklyn street corner, in what seemed a “gang-related” shooting, Tray took four bullets in the chest.

If Brownsville began with his death, says his grandmother Lena — Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson in a grief-wracked opening monologue — it would be too much. To show that Tray “was not the same old story,” the play moves back and forth, to before and after his death. Along with “why,” other questions intrude: Was Tray in a gang? His friends were. So, was his chipper, motivated behavior just a pose? And, for that matter, why do young people kill each other, and why isn’t anything being done about it? As Lena shouts, “Ain’t nobody deserve it.”

For Moxie, Danita Lee’s coded costumes, reds and bright oranges, exude vitality. On Sean Fanning’s set, graffiti and concrete freeway girders put Brownsville inside Lena’s modest apartment. Nate Parde intertwines light and darkness the way the play weaves past and future.

The script beams on and off, however. Some scenes should be condensed; others collapse two together with a sag in the middle. Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg bridges some wide gaps as best she can. In Tray’s (Cortez L. Johnson) scenes with his withdrawn sister Devine (Zoe Turner Sonnenberg), the director injects dance sequences — jumping rope or just getting down — with exuberant physicality. These graceful outbursts and Johnson’s engaging performance turn impish, innocent Tray into a life force.

Brownsville Song (B-Side for Tray)

  • Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N, Rolando
  • $30 - $40

Brownsville Song (b-side for Tray), by Kimber Lee

Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg; cast: Cortez L. Johnson, Jul Kaneshiro, Alex Robinson, Zoe Turner Sonnenberg, Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson; scenic design, Sean Fanning; costumes, Danita Lee; lighting, Nate Parde; sound, Emily Jankowski

Playing through February 28; Thursday at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m. moxietheatre.com

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