When playwright Stephen Jeffreys adapted his own 1994 play "The Libertine," a loose biographical account of the notorious Restoration poet John Wilmot (also known by his title, 2nd Earl of Rochester) for a 2004 film starring Jonny Depp in the title role, he kept many of the play's conventions in place -- including a prologue in which Wilmot declares, "I do not want you to like me."
In the play, Wilmot says a bit more: "I do not require your affection, but I do require your attention." As the star of the production, Joseph W. Rodriguez absolutely compels attention: Forceful and tormented, his Wilmot takes to the stage with cold charm as well as sexual and existential ferocity. He brings John Malkovich to mind as Valmont in "Dangerous Liaisons," but a liaison with Wilmot is considerably more dangerous because his brilliant mind is being eroded by syphilis. He says as much in the prologue, warning both women and men in the audience that, while they may find him attractive, they'd be far better served by looking on than by participating in any of his shenanigans.
Wilmot, a contemporary of Dryden and courtier of King Charles II (Richard Wayne), is supremely graced with wit and erudition, but chooses to apply his genius to provocation. He writes profane poetry and plays; he fires a servant simply in order to install a rogue and thief named Alcock (Eric Doss) in his place (and he makes it plain that he expects and wants no loyalty from Alcock, who nonetheless serves him faithfully). In short, Wilmot seems determined to set everything on its head. And why not, when the age seems dominated by matters of reason and restraint? What about the wild throbbing spirit of chaos and revel?
Wilmost certainly likes to rub his gifts in the faces of the powerful and party hard with the ladies; in addition to having taken a wife, Lady Malet (Sarah Koestner is a study in poise and patience in the role) he sports with a prostitute named Jane (Megan O'Leary), who, while she may like Rochester, hardly has a heart of gold -- bronze, maybe; she responds to his drunken calls, but refuses to stand watch over him as he sleeps it off in a bawdy house.
But actress Lizzie Barry (Olivia D'Ambrosio) is another matter. Reviled by the theater-going crowd, Lizzie nonetheless catches Rochester's eye -- for her beauty? Or because he sees a talent there that others miss? Rochester may be a rake and a scoundrel, but he's also supremely confident in his own prodigious abilities, and he bets his pals (played by Troy Barboza, Daniel Duque-Estrada, and Brooks Reeves) that in a year he'll have transformed her into a goddess of the stage, loved and revered by all.
This last affair is most truly one of the heart, and of the art; Barry and the theater-loving Rochester are two of a kind, each self-possessed to the point of the impolitic. Indeed, with Rochester's tutelage and social sponsorship, Barry does become successful, and this raises the question: Wilmot may be determined to embrace chaos, but does this make him a "libertine?" Or merely a contrarian? Or is he a genius who simply cannot be expected to adhere to the rules as others know them? Will those brave enough to follow him attain greatness, like Barry, or meet an ignoble doom (as indeed one of Rochester's friends does during a night of debauchery)?
It may be an academic query, but it's also be an existential one. At times, Rochester's guise of merriment slips, to reveal a heart in despair; he insults King Charles with the precise aim of provoking him, partly to awaken the king to truths greater than politics, but also partly to bring the king's wrath onto his head. Rochester is self-destructive, and yearns for nothing so much as annihilation. He's a repulsive, and yet sympathetic character; just as he predicted, we rather like and care about him, though he wishes we would not.
The production takes place in a black box environment: The Wimberly stage at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts -- the stage itself, mind you, which is equipped with seating for this production. For scenic elements, the cast whisks panels around, all of them decorated with one sort of wallpaper on one side, and another sort on the reverse. With brisk efficiency, the cast configures these panels to create any number of settings, from rough nighttime London streets to elegant drawing rooms, to taverns and houses of ill repute.
The costumes, however, shun such clever simplicity -- they are practically lavish. It's a fitting contrast that's echoed in every aspect of the production, which relies heavily, and effectively, on Les Dickert's lighting scheme to establish place and tone while Michael Wartofsky's score and Bevin Kelly's sound design could have come from a much more elaborate presentation. (There's even a dirty, funny, and anachronistic song in the mix, singing the praises of "Senor Dildo.") Don't get the wrong idea: These choices are deliberate and precise, and they preserve a theatrical complexity that's rich and exciting.
This is the officially inaugural production of the Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston (this summer's production of Harold Pinter's "The Lover" and the short play "The Interview," part of Boston Theater Marathon XV, were... let's call them teasers), and if the company's ambitions seem lofty, rest assured that they are met. In this, Bridge Rep is aided by New York company Playhouse Creatures Theatre. Is the dynamism and vibrancy of this "Libertine" down to some artistic species of hybrid vigor? Time will tell, but I'm betting that this is just the start of greater things to come.
"The Libertine" continues through Sept. 22 at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. For more information, please visit the Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston website.