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A CurtainUp Review

The Belle's Strategem
By Jenny Sandman

One must like what the rest of the world likes. ---Lady Frances Touchwood
Zounds! Confusion!---Doricourt
Despite all evidence to the contrary, there were female playwrights before the twentieth century. Many of these were even famous and prolific playwrights, that have, for whatever reason, been unjustly left out of theatre history textbooks. One of these was Hannah Cowley, one of the principal playwrights of late eighteenth-century London. The Belle's Strategem (1780) was probably the most famous of her plays and Prospect Theater Company has brought its first fully staged production to New York in over 100 years.

Like the earlier The Beaux's Strategem (1707), The Belle's Strategem is a lighthearted comedy of manner, centering around the impending marriage of Doricourt and Letitia Hardy. They have been engaged since childhood. Now that they have met for the first time as adults, Doricourt fears his future wife will be a timid, simpering creature, and Letitia fears she may have given him the wrong impression. As she works desperately to show him that she can be witty and exciting, he tries to get the engagement annulled.

Because a comedy of manners must have multiple, interwoven subplots, their newlywed friends, the Touchwoods, have just arrived in town. Lady Frances, a country girl, wants to be introduced into fashionable society, but her husband is fiercely jealous and doesn't want her innocence corrupted by fashion. Courtall, a scamp, pursues Lady Frances despite her protestations, and his friend Saville tries to convince Doricourt to go through with the marriage to Letitia. All wait for the thunderbolt, so to speak-- wanting to be struck by Cupid's arrow, rather than put in the time and effort required to develop and nurture love.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this comedy is lighter and wittier than those written by Cowley's male contemporaries. Her characters have greater depth, and she manages to extol the virtues of both English court and English womanhood while satirizing fashionable society. Also. not surprisingly, the members of Prospect Theatre Company have pulled off this production with their usual wit and aplomb. Though The Belle's Strategem is a comedy of manners, and an antiquated one at that, it never feels slow or dated. The performances sparkle, all delightfully tongue-in-cheek, and the actors have an excellent and comfortable grasp of the language.

Davis McCallum's direction, while uninspired in places, makes excellent use of the cast's high energy level and of the space. The half-round shallow stage at the West End theatre has been tricked out to resemble an eighteenth-century stage, with wall panels that fold out to reveal various props. In an interesting twist, the dimmer box blew just before curtain on opening night, and so the whole show was performed with one lighting cue. In a testament to Prospect, the production didn't suffer at all. The costumes, though not strictly authentic, were reminiscent of the era; colorful and original, with some surprising touches.

Prospect Theatre Company is one of off-off-Broadway's most talented theatre companies, and this latest offering lives up to their reputation. It's a great production of a rarely produced play. Don't miss it!

Editor's Note: If you'd like to read the play, you'll find it as part of a recently published collection from Oxford University press, edited by Melinda C. Finberg and including besides Cowley's play, the works of Mary Pix, Susanna Centlivre, Elizabeth Griffith. Below is the link for checking it out at our book store: 18th-Century Women Dramatists

Written by Hannah Cowley
Directed by Davis McCallum
Featuring Dorothy Abraham (Kitty Willis), Christian Roulleau (Tony) Leo Kittay (Saville), Ian Oldaker (Courtall), Saxon Palmer (Doricourt), Damian Long (Flutter), Robert Bowen, Jr. (Villers), Susan Wands (Mrs. Racket), Aysan Celik (Letitia Hardy), R. Paul Hamilton (Old Hardy), Ed Vassallo (Sir George Touchwood), Wendy Rich Stetson (Miss Ogle), and Kate MacKenzie (Lady Frances Touchwood)
Set Design by Mimi Lien
Lighting Design by Jorge Arroyo
Costume Design by Naomi Wolff
Sound Design by Jeremy J. Lee
Running time: Two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission
Prospect Theater Company at West End Theatre in the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, 263 West 86th Street, 212-352-0255
9/27/03-10/19/03; opening 9/27/03br> Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on September 27th performance

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