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A CurtainUp Review
She Stoops . . .to Conquer
By Charles Wright
Born somewhere between 1728 and 1730, Goldsmith died the year after this play premiered. It was the crowning achievement of a career that included poetry and prose of great literary merit, as well as much hackwork for periodicals and the publishing houses of Grub Street.
The 18th century was an age of sentimental comedy constructed according to familiar formulae. Goldsmith rejected sentimentality in favor of dry humor; and She Stoops to Conquer initiated a rich decade in British drama that includes works by Richard Brinsley Sheridan such as The School for Scandal. But Goldsmith didn't jettison all the narrative contrivances of his day, and the plot of She Stoops to Conquer, like that of any comedy of the era, requires audiences to suspend disbelief to a considerable degree.
Scott Alan Evans, artistic direct of The Actors Company Theatre (TACT), keeps the action whizzing along from scene to scene with a roistering quality that diverts attention from the most outlandish points of Goldsmith's plot. The spirited direction, which emphasizes the funniest — and most believable — aspects of the characters' behavior, brings to mind the period style and relentless pace of Tony Richardson's film Tom Jones (adapted from a novel by Henry Fielding, older than Goldsmith but nonetheless a contemporary).
Director Evans has adapted Goldsmith's text in a way that's solicitous of the limitations of today's audiences but respectful of the playwright. The original text is long; and Evans' judicious elisions are a boon to contemporary attention spans and ears unaccustomed to 18th century prose. Mr. Evans' only obtrusive and arguably pointless modification is the ellipsis he has inserted in Goldsmith's title, making it She Stoops . . . to Conquer.
The wild doings are set in motion by Marlow's arrival at the provincial residence of the Hardcastles, a family of local gentry whom the young aristocrat has never met. Marlow and friend George Hastings (Tony Roach) have journeyed from London because Marlow's father hopes the son will marry the well-born Kate Hardcastle.
At a public house where he stops along the way, Marlow falls prey to a trick (never mind why or how) and he enters the Hardcastles' mansion believing it to be an inn. Received as honored guests, Marlow and Hastings behave as picayunish customers at a hotel, issuing demands and dismissing Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle (John Rothman and Cynthia Darlow) with the contempt of London aristocrats for those who soil their hands in trade.
In the midst of this confusion, Marlow encounters Kate and is overcome by what he calls the "English malady." Having spent many years in all-male environments — boys' schools, a university, inns, and clubs — Marlow hasn't been exposed to "that lovely part of the creation that . . . teaches men confidence" (in other words, nice girls). He is so shy and uncertain that he can't even pass the time of day with women of quality. The perspicacious Kate, however, soon recognizes that Marlow is ready, willing, and able with females from society's lower strata, and concocts a strategy for a happy ending.
As Marlow and Kate, Beck and Lee play characters who appear, at first blush, the customary juvenile and ingenue of sentimental comedy. But Goldsmith's humor takes them in a direction innovative for his day. Overshadowed at first by the zanies around them, Beck and Lee find their sea legs within a scene or two, winning audience favor and delivering Goldsmith's surprises with period-appropriate brio.
Lee's ingenue, is a model of pre-feminist empowerment — poised, steady, certain of what she wants in the way of romance, and confident she deserves to get it. Beck, on the other hand, modulates from Marlow's ordinarily suave persona to a frantic, trembling awkwardness when confronted by a woman of breeding. In his first scene with Lee (in her upper-crust Kate persona), Beck delivers an audience-tickling display of twitches and stammers. When Lee dons Kate's saucy, tavern-maid disguise, Beck inflates with hauteur like a Macy's balloon of horn-dog machismo.
The eight member cast, six of whom belong to TACT's resident company, moves across the stage and all around the auditorium in a comic blur. Their velocity guarantees that there's no woolgathering in the audience. Lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger has illuminated the premises in such a way that the actors can be seen clearly as they barrel up and down the aisles and into the area behind the audience; and her lighting plot ensures that, despite all that activity in the auditorium, the ticketholders are never on the spot.
Of special note is Cynthia Darlow as Mrs. Hardcastle, the grandiose matron who confesses she has never been near London but derives her opinions and intricate style from that city's society pages and scandal sheets. One of the best practitioners of period comedy in New York theater, Darlow is ideally suited for the broad humor of this rambunctious production. And she's well matched by Rothman, a versatile character actor whose blusterous turn as Mr. Hardcastle calls to mind Hugh Griffith as Squire Western in Tom Jones.
All the players are visible throughout the performance, seated when not acting on either side of the rectangular platform that scenic designer Brett Banakis has created as the principal playing area. They double as rowdies in the tavern scenes and are servants at the Hardcastle residence. They also serve as stage hands for rapid scene changes, create sound effects, and provide incidental music, composed by David Broome, with guitar and elementary-school instruments. (When did you last see and hear a flutophone?)
Evans' script directs that the stage be set and the actors clothed with odds and ends that "blend" the look of today "with a twist and a nod to the 18th century." The TACT design team, which includes Banakis and costumer Tracy Christensen, has taken that direction to heart with furnishings, props, and a variety of garments that lend eye-appeal and idiosyncratic, up-to-the-minute style to the proceedings while keeping spectators mindful that this is a period piece, set in rural England during the reign of King George III.
James Boswell, in the Life of Samuel Johnson, quotes Dr. Johnson on this play: "I know no comedy for many years that has so exhilarated an audience [as She Stoops to Conquer], that has answered so much the great end of comedy — making an audience merry." Evans and his cast (plus a recruit from the audience at every performance) are demonstrating that, despite the passage of almost 250 years and the inevitable alteration in tastes, Dr. Johnson's opinion remains sound and Goldsmith's gem holds up as a source of merriment and a fine chance for actors to flaunt their comic gifts.
©Copyright 2016, Elyse Sommer.
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