— On the Old Globe stage this summer, Shakespeare's Two Gents has a disguised woman, Measure for Measure a Duke disguised as a priest, and you could even say that Prince Hamlet uses the "antic disposition" as a mask. And few people see through them. In fact, there are so many disguised characters in theater, from the Renaissance through the 18th Century, you wonder if entire populations needed their eyes checked. Paintings and portraits of the times delineate features sharply, but out on the street, did people identify costumes more than faces? Just how much of each other did they actually see?

In The Deception, currently in an outstanding production by Theatre de la Jeune Lune at the La Jolla Playhouse, Pierre de Marivaux adds a new wrinkle to the device of déguisement. To perform "amorous espionage," a woman disguises herself as a man. She will see the world as it is, not as it wants to seem. In the end, however, she can't extract the mask.

She's a French countess prearranged to marry Lelio. She wants to find out about her husband-to-be -- just curious because, after all, this man will have her heart. So she becomes Chevalier, a knight, and tumbles into way too much, including Lelio's five-million-franc prenup with another woman. Steven Epp and Dominique Serrand, who adapted the play from Marivaux's La Fausse Suivante (the fake servant), retitled it The Deception. The title's a mite misleading, since the one deception weaves multi-tangled webs. And once the servants learn of it, they thatch even more.

Marivaux (1688-1763) became notorious in his time -- and nowadays enjoyed -- for his bipolar style, a salmagundi of the high and the low, inserting a cherub, for example, when a gargoyle should appear. His contemporaries (Voltaire among them) pooh-poohed the topsy-turvy embroidery as "Marivaudage," which Claude Crebillion defines, in part, as "an introduction to each other of words that have never made acquaintance, and which think they will not get on together."

Along with telling an intriguing, ultimately fatal tale of avarice in the name of love, director Serrand and Jeune Lune have done a remarkable thing: they've recreated "Marivaudage" both visually and verbally. Performers flow across the stage like leaves on a river. As light as Prospero's Ariel, they'll suddenly make an oblique turn, or bang into a wall, and wobble like Keystone Kops. They strike poses, but not when you'd expect, and break them off as if too artful, or not artful enough. Most amazing: at no point do they move only for movement's sake. Every step is emotionally justified, so character- and scene-connected it never feels choreographed. The cast is, at once, precisely detailed and completely spontaneous. And all perform with the loose-cannon energy of youth.

Another high-low Marivaudage: Steven Epp's dialogue combines elegant phrasing -- the language of 1724, when the play premiered -- with the attitude-infested speech habits of today's young (Casey Greig's Lelio, for example, is as much gangsta as young French noble). Four-letter words jolt the production away from becoming a slick -- and distant -- 18th Century curio. There are times in Act One when the plots get so thick you can't tell who's sided with whom. But when the unmaskings begin, what might have been a comedy turns into stark, even violent, disillusionment.

The cast performs without props on a bare stage. Behind them looms David Coggins's majestic box set: three walls of at least 150 glass panels, each smeared with yellow, green, or blue paint, and with enough gender-sex imagery for a Rorschach buffet. A large, sliding wall and Marcus Dillard's vigorous, angular lighting make the space feel more than alive; it's a co-conspirator in the deceptions and painful revelations.

Sonya Berlovitz's soft beige, eggshell, and white costumes define character but, being deliberately drab, throw attention away from themselves: this production is about acting, not decoration.

J.C. Cutler, as the drunken Trivelin, and Nathan Keepers, as the mentally challenged Arlequino, bookend the cast: the former as the play's realist (at once off-putting but honest about his selfishness), the latter a bird-chasing comic delight. Merritt Janson gives Chevalier a subtle intensity, whether she's devising or deceived. A favorite moment: Chevalier tells the emotional countess she forgot to think; this when the Chevalier's brain-deep in the irrational.

Accompanied by two white-clad women -- the trio's graceful movements recalling the Three Fates -- Emily Gunyou Halaas's Countess is all extremes. She moves like a ballerina; then, bouncing from one wall to another, like a commedia clown. No step, high art or low comedy, feels out of place. Like the Jeune Lune production, Halaas creates living Marivaudage.

The Deception, by Pierre de Marivaux, adapted by Steven Epp and Dominique Serrand

La Jolla Playhouse, Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, UCSD

Directed by Dominìque Serrand; cast: Merritt Janson, Emily Gunyou Halaas, Casey Grieg, J.C. Cutler, Nathan Keepers, Brandon D. Taylor, Dorian Christian Baucum, Michelle Diaz, Liz Elkins; scenic design, David Coggins; costumes, Sonya Berlovitz; lighting, Marcus Dillard; sound, Zachary Humes

Playing through August 19; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.

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