To Fool the Eye is the English title American playwright Jeffrey Hatcher chose for his 2000 adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s 1940 play Léocadia, first translated in the ’50s as Time Remembered. Hatcher’s title refers to trompe l’oeil, an artistic technique that uses realistic imagery to create an optical illusion of three dimensions when only two exist. In French, “trompe” technically translates closer to “deceive” than “fool” — but Hatcher’s choice of a word that implies comedy over one that implies seriousness speaks volumes. In 1812 Productions’ staging, co-produced with Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, both Hatcher and director Jennifer Childs seem to want To Fool the Eye to be a French farce. This succeeds in some areas, not so much in others.
The plot, for example, certainly is as convoluted and crazy as the average farce: A dotty Duchess, concerned for her nephew Prince Albert after his girlfriend Léocadia’s sudden death, recreates on her vast estate all the places they visited together during their three-day courtship. Since wallowing doesn’t seem to be helping grim Albert, the Duchess secures a Léocadia look-alike, seamstress Amanda, to play the part of his lost love. (If this setup sounds a little strange and morbid for hilarity to ensue, you’re not alone.)
The production design expands on the idea of two-dimensional frivolity and reality vs. illusion: Adam Riggar’s cleverly transforming storybook sets literally frame the action in gold — allowing characters to emerge into the third dimension as if stepping through a picture frame. The Duchess’ drawing room also ties in to that theme as characters hide and pose behind portraits on her walls, comically responding to the action.
Unfortunately, the script refuses to cooperate with being framed as a farce, feeling more like a melancholy rumination on lost love and memory’s manipulative powers. Act I’s drawn-out setup leads to a long discussion about the Léocadia invented by Albert’s misery versus her actual words and actions. Once Amanda’s common-sense personality breaks through the idealized, scripted version of the woman she’s been asked to impersonate, Albert is predictably forced to break with the past and confront reality. Farce? No. A potentially engaging romantic fantasy? Well, maybe — but we don’t find out from this production.
Michael Doherty seems ideal for mercurially emotional Albert, and plays his unraveling with a sincerity that would work well in a production that encouraged it. Amanda Holston’s seamstress, however, lacks subtlety and depth: She hits one strident note throughout, doing little to become Léocadia and even less to establish Amanda, a union worker appalled by Albert’s extravagant wallowing: “Many a memory is beautiful,” she says, “but life is not.” It takes two to make a conversation, let alone a relationship — and in this production characters seldom even look at each other, let alone connect.
Some capable actors flail around the edges: Maureen Torsney-Weir’s Duchess is surprisingly crotchety, though the script clearly creates a mischievous meddler with a lighter touch. David Howey follows her listlessly as Lord Hector, but hams bizarrely with a contrived American-ish accent as a hotel manager. David Blatt fumes and frets as a waiter, leaving Brian McCann to bring genuine style and wit to The Butler, directing a team of Drexel students in scene changes with imperious finger-snaps.
When scene changes outshine scenes, however, something’s amiss. It’s the difference between the frivolity of the phrase “To Fool the Eye” and the winsome poetry suggested by “Time Remembered.”
Through March 3, $22-$38, Mandell Theater, Drexel University, 3201 Chestnut St., 215-592-9560, 1812-productions.org.