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Comic Style and Pure Fun

The Beaux' Stratagem
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway
For Potomac Stages

Imagine, if you will, the formalized farcical style of the eighteenth-century English stage that led up to the likes of Sheridan's The Rivals (remember Nancy Robinette on this stage as Mrs. Malaprop?) blended with the informal human comedy touch of mid-twentieth century Thornton Wilder (recall The Matchmaker) and topped off with the full-out comic style of Washington's own Ken Ludwig (Lend Me A Tenor). Such diverse sources for a single play might be the formula for confusion and failure. Instead, a three-century "collaboration" is a sparklingly funny evening that under the superb direction of Michael Kahn, plays very well indeed. This world premiere of a complete rewrite of a rarely performed, but well known, 1707 comedy starts a bit slowly as multiple plot lines are established, but builds to a delightful romp as those stories come together.

Storyline: Two down-on-their-luck English gentlemen (known as "gentlemen of broken fortune") head off to the hinterlands to find a wealthy woman to wed. It doesn't matter which one wins the prize for they have agreed to share any fortune they strike. One pretends to be the servant of the other, but, of course, both fall for local ladies. Complications are added by a band of brigands led by a rogue impersonating a pastor. To provide further laughs, the authors throw in a ditsy mother in law, her drunk of a son and a swishy French minister.

The Beaux' Strategem began in 1707 as a comedy by George Farquhar, one of the acknowledged masters of the style known as "restoration comedy" that was so popular at the time. It was successful in its day but it is rarely performed in modern times. Thornton Wilder began an adaptation in 1939, but did not complete the project. Now Ken Ludwig takes up Wilder's fragment to produce a new version for modern audiences. Apparently Wilder had collapsed some of the stories, discarded some of the extraneous characters and tightened up the original five act script. He hadn't gone much beyond the first of a two act structure he adopted for the adaptation, so much of Ludwig's work is evident in the second act. There's a very real change in the level of energy and the frequency of laughs in that second half which plays much more like Ludwig. However, Michael Kahn's steady hand meshes the disparate portions of the resulting Farquhar/Wilder/Ludgwig comedy so that the differences aren't bothersome at all.

Christopher Innvar is often hilarious as the gentleman posing as a servant in the ploy, and Veanne Cox brings a touch of Carol Burnett style timing to the role of the lady he woos. Christian Conn teams up with Julia Coffey as the other couple, making more of the roles than just comic foils. Throughout the evening Hugh Nees and Nancy Robinette spice things up beautifully. A complicating subplot is introduced early on with Rick Foucheux as "a man of two professions, highwayman and minister." The role never really takes off, however. A second act creation of the modern re-write is a real crowd pleaser in the hands of Floyd King. He plays the minister brought in at the end. In Farquhar's original text, the role had about three lines of dialogue. Here, in a touch very much in the Ludwig manner, he becomes a running gag as the wedding he's supposed to perform is an on, off and on again thing. King makes the most of it.

James Kronzer's sets are not actually part of the Farquhar/Wilder/Ludwig script, but they are very much a part of the audience enjoyment of this production. With two counter-revolving turntables, the large structure of the English Tudor-style inn breaks into pieces which rotate and reassemble as an equally large, imposing Georgian-style manor house. The first time the turntables swirled the audience applauded. The second time, they oohed and aahed. Add the sumptuous period costumes of Robert Perdziola, and Martin Desjardins' selection of the proper period music, and you have the opulent feel Shakespeare Theatre Company audiences have come to expect.

Written by George Farquhar, Thornton Wilder and Ken Ludwig. Directed by Michael Kahn. Choreographed by Peter Pucci. Fight direction by Paul Dennhardt. Design: James Kronzer (set) Robert Perdziola (costumes) Joel Moritz (lights) Carol Rosegg (photography) M. William Shiner (stage manager). Cast: Ian Bedford, Julia Coffey, Christian Conn, Veanne Cox, Dan Crane, Colleen Delany, Dew Eshelman, Rick Foucheux, Daniel Harray, Christopher Innvar, Maria Kelly, Floyd King, Diane Ligon, David Murgittroyd, Hugh Nees, Nancy Robinette, Anne Stone, Matthew Stucky, Nick Vienna.

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