The first time James Magruder heard the word "dramaturg," he was at a party after a summer stock performance of "Damn Yankees."
At the time, theater was a sideline to his study of French literature at Yale University. "I was supposed to be studying for my doctoral orals, and I was dancing in the chorus of 'Damn Yankees.' I said, 'This says something,' " recalls the boyish-looking Magruder, who is now in his second season as Center Stage's resident dramaturg.
A dramaturg, he discovered, is the person who serves as "the bridge between the intellectual study of theater and the practical pursuit of theater. I always joke and say I'm the resident egghead and art police."
However, in the case of Center Stage's production of Marivaux's 18th-century comedy, "The Triumph of Love" -- which begins the season on Friday -- Magruder has stepped out of his role as dramaturg and into the role of translator.
"The Triumph of Love" was part of Magruder's dissertation for his doctorate in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism from Yale, and the translation began as a class assignment. However, Magruder realizes that Marivaux's name is hardly a household word, and answering questions about him is exactly the type of activity he's accustomed to when he mans Center Stage's Dramaturgy Hotline -- (410) 685-3200 -- established a few years back and available Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Settling in to provide a little background before a recent rehearsal, he explains that Marivaux was a contemporary of Voltaire and Rousseau. His plays experienced a renaissance in Europe beginning in the 1920s, and they are studied by French schoolchildren. However, "The Triumph of Love" remained little known outside France until a German production in the mid-1980s.
Now, he continues, this play in particular has attracted a wave of interest in the United States, and this season Marivaux will be the third most produced classic playwright in American regional theaters -- right behind Shakespeare and Shaw.
Why the recent interest? Because, Magruder contends, in addition to being a playwright, Marivaux was a precursor of modern psychology. "His revolution in comedy was to make the obstacles interior and psychological. Before this, it was parents and rivals and differences in class and station or money," he says. "In a sense, Marivaux helped invent psychology."
In "The Triumph of Love," a princess named Leonide falls in love with orphaned Prince Agis, whose kingdom was usurped by her uncle. Disguised as a man, Leonide insinuates herself into the household of the exiled prince and his guardians in hopes of winning the prince's heart and restoring him to his rightful throne.
Ironically, when the play was new, contemporary critics found Leonide too scheming, but in these more liberated times, Magruder feels this powerful female character is part of the play's appeal. In addition, he says, "As we struggle -- lurching toward the millennium -- with sex roles, sexual identity and the power of gender, [the play] has a lot to say to us."
However, this topicality doesn't mean the script was easy to translate. Not only does French have a more limited vocabulary than English, he explains, but the playwright is famous for something called "Marivaudage."
"Now it has a negative connotation in France, but it's Marivaux's style of writing -- a painstaking manifestation of psychological feelings, expressed incredibly subtly," he says. In "The Triumph of Love," part of this subtlety involves shifts in language as the characters shift identities and philosophies.
"I was interested in all those shifts -- jumping from high culture to low culture," he explains, adding that these cultural juxtapositions are also a theme in his original writing, which includes several plays, an unpublished novel and another in the works.
Because it would constitute a conflict of interest, Magruder is not serving as dramaturg on this premiere production of his translation of "Triumph." That task falls to Catherine Sheehy, associate editor of American Theatre magazine, who says kiddingly, "I'm the dramaturg's dramaturg."
However, she has only serious praise for Magruder's translation. "Obviously you're dealing with an 18th-century French text, [and] it has to be absolutely as engaging as possible for your audience because they're just not familiar with the work of Marivaux. [Magruder] makes that work very accessible," Sheehy says. "Jim has managed to capitalize on the timeliness of the themes by making the language modern as well."
Like many theater professionals, Magruder -- who turns 33 this week -- initially became involved in theater as an actor, although he admits, "I always knew I was never a great performer." A native of Washington who spent most of his formative years in Wheaton, Ill., he says, "First I was going to be a doctor, then a stockbroker, then I discovered theater. My high school had a great theater program, and I just didn't stop."
Nonetheless, he entered Cornell University as an economics major, changing his major to French when he decided to spend his junior year in France. However, he continued to act in plays every chance he got -- both in school and summer stock.
He was working toward a doctorate in French literature when he enrolled in a course on medieval drama at the Yale School of Drama to fulfill a requirement for a minor. He quickly transferred to the drama school, obtaining his doctorate in 1992, after two seasons at California's La Jolla Playhouse as literary manager, an adjunct post to the dramaturg.
Magruder's introduction to Center Stage came after former artistic director Stan Wojewodski Jr. directed a La Jolla production of a play by Eric Overmyer. The following season when Center Stage premiered Overmyer's "The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin & Louis Chauvin," Magruder was invited to be one of two production dramaturgs.
This season he'll be "turging," as he affectionately puts it, Center Stage's productions of Shakespeare's "Othello" and Ibsen's "Ghosts." That means he'll serve as a kind of intermediary, smoothing the way between the printed word and the live production, researching past productions, supplying cast members with appropriate literary and historical background, and acting as host to several of the theater's increasingly popular discussion series, such as the Noontime Lectures, Humanities Discussions and AfterThoughts -- as well as continuing his duty of helping plan future seasons.
At the moment, however, Magruder can barely contain his enthusiasm for the forthcoming production of "The Triumph of Love." "This is the best way to revive Marivaux for the 20th century," he says, "to make him as passionate and sexy and hot as what's written."
"TRIUMPH OF LOVE"
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., most Sundays at 7:30 p.m., matinees most Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Through Nov. 7.
Call: (410) 332-0033.