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Storyline in ‘Three Oranges’ a juicy one

By Diana Saenger

La Jolla Light

If anyone ever imagined that an entire play could be staged around one large, billowy, hanging curtain, it was Nona Ciobanu, a Romanian director who has taken Italian Carlo Gozzi’s comic Persian fable, “The Love of Three Oranges,” and made it into a bizarre theatrical production.

La Jolla Playhouse artistic director, Des McAnuff, discovered Nona Ciobanu when he traveled to Hungary and Romania in 2002 with a group of artistic directors and invited her to perform her play at the Playhouse.

The plot is simple. A curse has been placed on young Prince Tartaglia (Jim Parsons), and he must search the kingdom for three oranges in order to survive. The execution of this plot is one of the most unusual and highly entertaining unravelings I have witnessed in 15 years of theater.

Laughter begins immediately at the start of the play as the curtain becomes a character, a sort of birth mother to the performers who emerge like larva wrapped in a fleece-like coverall. As they roll, find openings to extend their arms and legs and take form, Tartaglia reveals through sobs as huge as his big ball of a belly, that he is terribly depressed and wishes to die.

Tartaglia’s father, King Farfarello (Time Winters), a man who has no legs and walks on his hands, is beside himself with grief. He orders his staff to fix whatever is wrong with Tartaglia. First up to try his comedic cog is the court clown Truffaldino (John Altieri). Small and wiry, Altieri doesn’t need words to draw laughs; his quirky movements are themselves hilarious.

As the story moves on, every moment is filled with surprise and more laughs. James Magruder is responsible for the American adaptation of “The Love of Three Oranges,” but surely none of the magical aspects have been lost.

Ciobanu describes her play as a fairy tale with a group of archetypal characters. The curtain, she said, “can be seen as one of the major symbols of theater, having the role of creating a boundary between two worlds: the real world and the one of imagination ... both the magical world of theater and our daily one.”

Magical is the key word of how the performers use the curtain to fit the moment in the story. Each actor plays a combination of roles as Tartaglia and Truffaldino take to the road to find the three oranges that will cure Tartaglia of his illness.

They encounter the evil wizard Fata Morgana (Donald Corren) who wants the oranges for himself. They find the seductive and conniving Smeraldina (Tina Benko) who wants whatever she wants at the moment and will kill to get it. But, the sweet and lively Ninetta (Pascale Armand) is the one Tartaglia becomes besotted with and the one who may save his life.

Carmen Gill, Colette Beauvais and Owiso Odera complete the cast of performers who all play different roles and do a magnificent job.

“The Love of Three Oranges” is not the first Carlo Gozzi fable to be performed at the Playhouse. In 1996, director Julie Taymor brought “The Green Bird” and its unusual mix of dance, opera and burlesque to the Playhouse stage.

The merging of so many cultures and art forms is thrilling enough, but the execution of this family-friendly “The Love of Three Oranges” is not the first Carlo Gozzi fable to be performed at the Playhouse. In 1996, director Julie Taymor brought “The Green Bird” and its unusual mix of dance, opera and burlesque to the Playhouse stage.

The merging of so many cultures and art forms is thrilling enough, but the execution of this family-friendly production is what’s worth seeing. Words cannot do it justice.