The Milwaukee Rep's new production of Carlo Goldoni's Mirandolina (through Feb. 22) proves that women's liberation still had a long way to go in 18th-century Europe. The sure-headed title character may be mistress of her own successful inn, but she can't escape playing mistress to other men's whims. Even her dead father maintains a grasp on her fate with his dying decree. The spirited heroine and her twittering female counterparts also can't resist living up to the ungenerous portrayal of their sex supplied by those who applaud themselves for being impervious to them. In fact, the playwright ensured that Mirandolina's most estimable quality-her fearless single status-was forfeited by the end of the play.
It's no laughing matter, but nevertheless takes the guise of a lighthearted comedy. Although the Rep updates Mirandolina to what appears to be the 1930s, the sexual politics inherent remain just as pertinent against the backdrop of postwar Europe as they do in 18th-century Florence, and the age-old battle of the sexes entertains without resort to busty, corseted females in period attire. A minor criticism is that, despite being abridged to a more manageable length, the play drags on in the second half as gentle teasing leads all too abruptly to awkward surrender.
The play revolves around the aforementioned innkeeper who men seem unable to resist. Deborah Staples, no stranger to the role of seductress, exudes none of the sultry earthiness many have invested in the role. Instead she displays a less predictable and more native frankness and intelligence that makes her no less appealing. Ultimately, it somewhat raises the other sillier characters in our estimation for falling for a woman with such quiet charms.
These suitors include the slick Count of Albafiorita (Steve Pickering) and the fusty Marquis of Forlipopoli (Torrey Hanson), whose tight fist seems less a result of his diminished wealth than an innate frugality of spirit. Casting a dark and brooding shadow over the romance is the deeply misogynistic Knight of Ripafratta, whose disdain for Mirandolina turns to desperate attraction. Brian Vaughn makes an amusing transition from vainglorious pomp to over-heated passion over the course of the play. Strangely enough, he manages to rouse more pity than Mirandolina herself. One can't help feeling cheated as her independent spirit is quelled so suddenly by play's end, and her enigmatic last words offer little reassurance. It's here that Staples' good-natured appearance removes any of the sly nuances intended in this parting shot.