We get a look-in on Spain’s Golden Age via playwright-poet Lope de Vega’s 1590 farce about love and lunacy, in David Johnston’s pleasing and somewhat audacious 1998 translation. (Johnston’s version adds a second, alternate ending.) Across the English Channel at around the same time de Vega and Calderon were fusing dreams and life in their writings, Shakespeare was toying with similar ideas in both The Winter’s Tale and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Madness, however, we get no magic potions concocted by the sprites in order to fool mortals into believing they’re donkeys, or “enamored of an ass.” De Vega worked from the presumption that people are either mad, or pretend to be so, without any medicinal help. Floriano (Michael Holmes) arrives in the woods around Valencia in a panic that, for the love of a woman, he’s murdered a local prince. He confesses this fear to a young beauty, Erifila (Vivian Kerr) — a trusting confession, to say the least. Erifila took a servant as she fled from her father and his plans to bind her in an arranged marriage. (The servant strands her in the woods after robbing her of her jewelry and outer garments.) To escape notice, Erifila and Floriano secret themselves in the safest place around — Valencia’s famed mental asylum — where the pair pretend to be nuts, and where the play’s enveloping metaphor for society, and for lovers, takes root. There’s an amiable goofiness in Suzanne Karpinski’s staging of her 13-member ensemble, and this is the right company to pull off a show so influenced by the Italian commedia clowning of the 15th century. Holmes’ Floriano has a hangdog charm that makes him both a persuasive leading man and the idiot savant, depending on whom he’s trying to fool, while Kerr possesses a vivacious esprit that spins, when needed, into the requisite arrogance that accompanies sanctimonious betrayal. Kurt Boetcher’s set relies heavily on burlap and cloth drapery to symbolize the woods, in hues of green and purple. And though Karpinski’s tone is a bit languid at the start, the play’s tangles of attraction, and the accompanying pangs of jealousy, grow increasingly absorbing. For all the technical details and the abundant merits of Karpinski’s production, one does have the feeling that the play has been more staged than interpreted. The canvas on which the work unfolds contains few striking visual motifs that offer an urgent idea of why this play is being performed — beyond the obvious explanation that a few people sort of liked it. As such, it’s a delightful museum piece that could be much more, with a greater breadth of vision. Terrific performances also by Laura Napoli, Juliette Angeli, Brandon Clark and Paul Byrne, among others. Sacred Fools Theatre, Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. (added perf Sun., June 28, 2 p.m.); through June 28. (310) 281-8337.

Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sun., May 24, 2 p.m.; Sun., June 28, 2 p.m. Starts: May 22. Continues through June 28, 2009

LA Weekly