Money's the target and love's the arrow in 'Beaux' Stratagem'
Clever staging, fine cast hit the mark in charming play
By J. Wynn Rousuck
Baltimore Sun Theater Critic
November 26, 2006
George Farquhar ended his 1707 comedy, The Beaux' Stratagem, with a dance, but just about everything in director Michael Kahn's sprightly production at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre seems to dance - especially the scenery.
Built on concentric turntables that revolve around each other and slide into place like giant puzzle pieces, designer James Kronzer's sets magically transform themselves from a half-timbered rural inn to an elegant drawing room to a dispensary brimming with scary surgical devices and pots of herbs.
The slick-changing sets are stratagems in their own right, and so, in a way, is the Shakespeare Theatre's script. This world premiere adaptation is the result of three playwrights working in three different centuries.
The urtext, of course, is by Farquhar, an Irish playwright writing in the Restoration era. In 1939 - a year after his triumph with Our Town - Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Thornton Wilder began adapting Farquhar's script for Broadway. But he never completed the task.
Two years ago, the late playwright's nephew and literary executor, A. Tappan Wilder, who lives in Chevy Chase, sent a copy of Wilder's handwritten, unfinished text to Washington playwright Ken Ludwig, whose Broadway credits include Lend Me a Tenor and Crazy for You.
Now, three centuries after Farquhar and almost seven decades after Wilder, this collaborative Stratagem is charming audiences with its comical characters, farcical shenanigans and uplifting moral: " ... finding your true self within yourself is the only sure guide to happiness." Thematically, it's as true to Wilder or Ludwig - who write about the importance of enjoying life, with all of its quirks, and of shunning disguises and accepting your genuine identity - as it is to Farquhar.
The events leading up to this moral concern two nearly impoverished gentlemen. Their stratagem is that one of them will marry money, and then the two men will split the wife's fortune. To carry this off, they decide to impersonate an aristocrat and his servant
Their ploy runs awry, however, when both men fall in love with women they are trying to dupe. Along the way, there are subplots about a robbery and a dowager who practices medicine with gruesome glee.
Kahn's splendid cast brings it all together with great comedy and clarity. As the two fortune hunters, Christian Conn's Tom Aimwell is a good-hearted, good-looking gentleman who's in over his head, and Christopher Innvar's Jack Archer is a sly and amusingly frustrated schemer (Innvar is especially good at his character's soliloquies - expanded by Ludwig - in which Archer gives vent to his exasperation). And Julia Coffey's Dorinda proves suitably lovesick as the rich heiress on whom Aimwell sets his sights.
But it is Veanne Cox as Mrs. Sullen, the object of Archer's affections, who delivers the most humorous performance, whether displaying a delicious deadpan while dispensing Mrs. Sullen's dry sarcastic cracks or valiantly trying to appear modest and demure when she lusts for Archer.
Among Wilder and Ludwig's rewrites was the enhancement of the role of Dorinda's mother, Lady Bountiful - making her even more bountiful. Nancy Robinette pulls out all the stops in her depiction of this ebullient "healer," whose remedies appear far more frightening than whatever ails you. Wielding an ax with wild abandon, she's nothing short of hilarious in fight choreographer Paul Dennhardt's penultimate fracas.
One of Wilder and Ludwig's boldest interpolations was having a wealthy, titled gentleman (Mrs. Sullen's brother) choose to marry a serving girl. It's a match that defies the class system in a way that might have ruffled aristocratic feathers in Farquhar's day.
In another way, however, Farquhar was well ahead of his time. Near the end of the play, Farquhar - who was trapped in a miserable marriage himself - included a divorce trial. At the time, divorce was illegal in England, where The Beaux' Stratagem premiered. And though the play was an immediate hit, the divorce scene brought him some critical drubbing. Today, the scene just adds to the fun.
Archer and Aimwell set out to steal a fortune and end up having their hearts stolen in The Beaux' Stratagem. Appropriately, the Shakespeare Theatre's delightful production will steal some hearts as well.
Copyright © 2006, The Baltimore Sun