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The charge is that history has neglected the plays of Susanna Centlivre (1669-1723), said to be the most performed playwright of the 18th century, and a favorite of David Garrick. This is certainly one way of looking at it. More persuasive is the contention that Miss Centlivre's plays neglect history. Upon viewing her work now on display, and I daresay she is unlikely to be so lavishly served anytime in the near future, it is a wonder to me that The Wonder was done at all. Not because playwright Centlivre lacks wit, or fails to adhere to the unities, or because she is any way lacking in talent. No, she displays complete mastery of her craft and was, no doubt, rightly honored in her time. It is just that some three hundred years have made arranged marriages, the play's subject matter, and the frenzied machinations of the aristocracy somewhat, how shall one say, dated?
Set in Lisbon, Portugal, Centlivre's play is an elaboration of the common period theme of frustrated lovers, thwarted by tyrannical fathers. Restoration comedy owes much to the dissemination of classical learning and the influence of Terrance and Menander. There is little here that varies from the formula of horny men in pursuit of inaccessible maidens, save for the heavy-handed epilogue that calls for the recognition of women's equality with men. By the time we have endured the efforts of Colonel Briton to get Isabella and Don Felix to land Violante, the only equality this play seems to call for is that of the right for all classes of individuals to be free to screw in peace. 19th century Puritanism strikes me as far more likely the culprit in stifling this play's reputation than any conspiracy against women writers.
Of course, director Elizabeth Swain may already know this. This might, in fact, be part of an elaborate plan to test her players first on an obscure and trivial 18th century play, while waiting for public reaction. If they should flounder, well, what has been lost? While if they should triumph - as they have - she and the cast can go on to found a theatre company specializing in restoration comedy, and travel the world doing timeless masterpieces by Wycherley, Dryden, and Congreve. For the wonder of this production of The Wonder lies entirely in what Ms Swain has accomplished with this cast.
In order of perfection, the following deserve special notice. First are the lovers Don Felix (Brian Avers) and Violante (Ami Ankin). A more convincing seduction you are unlikely to see. Mr. Avers possesses an array of hidden powers. He has tremendous concentration and great subtlety. Watch his hands, and you'll know his heart. Miss Ankin plays the Mediterranean beauty to perfection. She is at once haughty and vulnerable. She personifies what she denies. Ankin and she together make the audience jealous of their love. They are a dynamic couple.
Next is the talented Mel England who plays the determined Colonel Briton, the Englishman abroad in search of a broad. This is a bold player, indeed. He struts and pounces, as much an athlete as a gifted actor. His Colonel Briton is a man with a mission. No Portuguese maiden is safe. Mr. England steals the stage with his magnetic presence.
The two male servants, Lissardo (Joe MacDougall) and Gibby (Wry Lachlan) do much to make this a memorable entertainment. Each in his way possesses a comic gift. Mr. MacDougall was born to play the cowering fool. He communicates an instinctive cowardice, as he cringes and cries. Mr. Lachlan sports the Highlander's get-up, an accent strong enough to sell shortbread, and a fist that would frighten the Bruce. He is hilarious, an utterly winning personification of the little man with a lot to prove.
Finally, there is J. M. McDonough's Don Pedro. His performance alone convinces me that this Ms Swain and company deserve a second chance. His voice is as delicious and killing as English peppermint laced with strychnine. He moves and speaks with elegant precision. We understand at once his malicious heart.
The accomplishments of these actors stand out, but no performer lacks competence. All are aided by the extraordinary costumes, which are of the quality of the Old Vic. The wigs are to die for. It will indeed be a crime if these end up in boxes, tucked away in the attic at the T. Schreiber Studio. Ms Swain and company must set about rehearsing their next triumph in a play more worthy of their considerable skills.
Written by Susanna Centlivre.
Director: Elizabeth Swain.
Cast: Ami Ankin, Brian Avers, Mel England, Reed Gazzale, Aimee Howard, Terrence Keene, Wry Lachlan, Caroline Luft, Marty McDonough, Joe MacDougall, Elizabeth Alice Murray, Jon Okabayashia, Michael Russell, Luisa Tedoff, Andrew Wise.
Choreography: Haila Strauss.
Set Design: Sara Lambert.
Costume Design: Jamie Suter & Melissa Vieira.
Lighting Design: Betsy Adams.
Wigs: Paul Huntley
Musical Director: Donna M. Cribari..
Running Time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission
The Gloria Maddox Theatre at the T. Schreiber Studio, 151 West 26th Street, 7th Floor, New York, (212) 741-0265.
1/24/2001 - 2/24/2002, Wed - Sat at 8pm; Sunday at 3pm, Sat. (2/23) at 3pm.
Reviewed by David Lohrey based on performance of 1/27/02.
©Copyright 2001, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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