Double Falsehood has many scholars and fans, amateur and professional alike, up in arms since the inclusion of the play into the Shakespearean canon. Classic Stage Company—of the belief that Lewis Theobald's Double Falsehood is a close cousin to a Shakespeare and John Fletcher collaboration, Cardenio—has endeavored to produce it and let the audience decide for themselves. Despite the controversy surrounding its authorship and adaptation, the play makes its way to the stage, and CSC artistic director Brian Kulick handles it deftly, conjuring a stylized and emotional production that flatters the play's strengths while almost hiding its faults.
Kulick has a keen eye for overall unification, and his designers have done their jobs well: Oana Botez-Ban's costumes and sets and Christian Frederickson's sound design blend together to create a world both sumptuous and bleak. Elaborate red Persian rugs on the floor and mounted on the wall function as scenery changes, as well as hiding places and a cleverly framed balcony. But the rugs do not attempt to hide the bareness of the floor nor give the feeling of home and comfort; they are a utilitarian display of nobility and changeability. The play begins with harsh clanging of a piano; the reverberations echo through the dark theater, setting the stage with brutal confusion and unhappiness. Once the lights go up, Brian H. Scott's design works in tandem to provide the flattering light of true love, the devious light of treachery, and the harsh light of truth and justice.
Even with such perfectly orchestrated production values, Kulick lets the story take center stage. Julio is sweet and single-mindedly devoted to his Leonora, though he suffers in leaving her to fulfill the bonds of duty and friendship, the value which he holds the highest. Upon his imminent departure, Clayton Apgar proclaims his vow of fidelity almost too much, to the point where he might have jumped ship from the script and become a feckless schmucky lead, like in Measure for Measure. But he is faithful to his lady for good reason: Hayley Treider as Leonora is smart and charismatic and loving, unafraid to express her love if she knows he reciprocates. As they are moving towards intimacy—in what ends up to be a scandalously and delightfully compromising position—she moves her hand from outside his jacket to the inside. It is a small gesture but one that speaks volumes of her need for his love. As the play progresses, Treider transforms from a charming young maid into a widowish nun, contemplating her lover whom she believes to be dead. She is truly devoted, though not to Jesus as the other sisters are. And when the pair are reunited, as they are bound to be, the world is righted again, Apgar and Treider so enraptured that they hardly notice the kerfluffle over the other couple.
Slate Holmgrem's Henriquez is a truant and enjoys it, seemingly reformed only to reveal himself as worse than before. Think it's bad that he tricks his friend into leaving so the miscreant can seduce his wealthy lady? He one-ups himself by seducing a lady with no money and no means, possibly against her will. (Modern viewers would probably agree that he's up to no good, but the characters themselves aren't quite as convinced. As two audience members commented outside of the theater, "Why would you marry your rapist? Now she has to see him every day at breakfast.") MacKenzie Meehan plays a wonderfully sassy Violante, grounded and pragmatic enough to resist Henriquez's initial advances. As she journeys to find vengeance or restitution—one can't be too sure—we see a woman on a mission in a dangerous world. Holmgrem takes Henriquez's hubris to new heights in using Christ imagery to convince himself that he has cheated punishment once again. When he finally gets his comeuppance, Holmgrem looks positively sick, much to the delight of the audience.
It is such a shame then, after noting these fine performances, that one can mar the whole. Jon Devries as Bernardo has down pat the growly paternal figure, mistakenly looking after his own idea of Leonora's best interests, but he does nothing with a potentially rich character. Bernardo has complicated motivations, but none are explored by Devries as we repeatedly see the one choice he makes every time.
Although Kulick does an admirable job setting up his production, even the slightest of variables—a hesitant actor, an imperfect script, a plethora of tiny details—can prevent the entire show from gelling, keeping it from reaching that ethereal place of theater magic we all so eagerly seek.