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Reviews

There's Life In The Old "Beaux'" Yet

By Peter Marks

Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, November 15, 2006; C01

After its risky, radical reconstructive surgery, we can report that "The Beaux' Stratagem" is resting comfortably. No, more than comfortably -- charmingly.

George Farquhar's 1707 comedy -- one of those rollicking yarns of well-bred scamps and schemes to steal hearts and cash -- has found a resourceful nurturer in director Michael Kahn. His Shakespeare Theatre Company is offering a wholly new adaptation that dips one stockinged toe in the 18th century and another in the 21st.

This production has been many years in the making -- 67, to be exact. Its roots are in a revision that Thornton Wilder began in 1939 and never finished. Only recently did Washington playwright Ken Ludwig ("Crazy for You") pick up the torch, completing Wilder's overhaul of Farquhar and adding a layer of meaning to the term "restoration comedy."

Reading the play in its original form, you understand why a reworking would be in order. Packed with archaic references and numbingly discursive songs and soliloquies, the play seems more than a tad fusty, its characters digressing in oddly unenlightening ways.

The new "Stratagem" might not be definitive. It feels as if its originator is merely a cog in a writing team across the centuries (perhaps its rightful author should be called Farwildwig).

Whatever else this "Stratagem" is, though, it's funny. Characters have been added and subtracted, new subplots devised and relationships forged, language modernized and fight scenes given contemporary twists. As you might expect with this kind of restitching, a few seams inevitably show and traces of the vintage style -- starchy but authentic -- are sacrificed. And some jokes refuse to be resuscitated, no matter how much oxygen you pump in.

Still, "The Beaux' Stratagem," as they say, "plays." It emerges from its extreme makeover with a generous new lease on lunacy.

One of the major benefits of clearing out the play's narrative and linguistic underbrush is tautness. The focus has been sharpened -- it's more of a caper comedy now, and so the story has more shape and assuredness. As he's demonstrated of late in a variety of offerings -- from Ben Jonson's "The Silent Woman" to Shakespeare's "Love's Labor's Lost" -- Kahn has an affection for low comedy as well as high. (You even begin to get the feeling that he may prefer the low stuff.) This broad affinity applies satisfyingly to "Stratagem," as the production glides confidently from silly to wry, from the pratfall to the riposte.

The director is well served, too, by his cast, particularly by his leads: suave Christopher Innvar and tart Veanne Cox, polished comic actors who seem as smart as the words they utter.

Innvar brings an air of rakish playfulness to the role of Jack Archer, who, disguised as a servant, has come to Lichfield with a confederate (Christian Conn) to woo the ladies and line his pockets. And Cox knows just how much dry disdain with which to invest Kate Sullen, trapped in an unbearable marriage to the inebriated Mr. Sullen (Ian Bedford), a Neanderthal whose indulgent mother, Lady Bountiful (Nancy Robinette), maintains that he drinks solely for his health.

"In that case," Cox deadpans, "he must be the healthiest man in England."

In these period larks, Robinette is sort of like the warranty: You know you will get your money's worth. Her Lady Bountiful -- a role that has been substantially beefed up in this version -- is cousin to the syntactically challenged Mrs. Malaprop she played for the company three years ago in "The Rivals."

Her comic hook this time is a completely misguided faith in her ability as a healer. In Ludwig's version, the consequences are hilariously fatal. (As Scrub, the family retainer, Hugh Nees ably performs the pleasurable assignment of reporting on the havoc she wreaks.) Lady Bountiful's skills in science, she reveals, boil down to "deduction, induction, conduction -- the three ductions."

Robinette smiles through her recitation with the glow of one who's utterly certain. The happiest among us, it seems, are the ones who doubt themselves least.

"The Beaux' Stratagem" takes as a given that man is a double-dealer where love or money is concerned: Nearly everyone is doing something shady behind someone's back. The Wilder/Ludwig version makes more intricate than the original a plot to rob Lady Bountiful's estate by several highwayman, including a newly invented one (played by Rick Foucheux) who masquerades as a parson. Subplots that involve an innkeeper's daughter (Colleen Delany) and her dalliances are also more explicit.

For sure, many verbatim passages from Farquhar have been retained, too, including a funny exchange between Bedford's Sullen and Cox's Kate, who list all the ways they've been wrong for each other.

As if to mirror the play's merry mix-ups, set designer James Kronzer has added a second turntable to the stage. It's a sublime addition: One device circles clockwise, the other counterclockwise, and pieces of the two buildings in which the action occurs -- a Tudor-style inn and a lavish country home -- ingeniously spin into place at the top of each scene. And Robert Perdziola's period gowns supply a handsome embroidery.

This production enhances the Shakespeare Theatre's record for sprucing up old texts in intriguing fashion (the company used a script filled with smart-alecky, contemporary references for a recent version of "Cyrano"). But the venture "Stratagem" recalls most vividly is John Strand's stirring adaptation two seasons ago of the 19th-century French drama "Lorenzaccio" that featured Jeffrey Carlson and Robert Cuccioli.

Those projects clearly indicate that as much as Shakespeare Theatre banks on the past, it is thinking about what it can leave behind for the future. In the case of "The Beaux' Stratagem," the company in cahoots with that Farwildwig fellow is bequeathing a goodly measure of enjoyment.

The Beaux' Stratagem, by George Farquhar. Adapted by Thornton Wilder and Ken Ludwig. Directed by Michael Kahn. Lighting, Joel Moritz; sound, Martin Desjardins; choreographer, Peter Pucci; fight director, Paul Dennhardt. With Drew Eshelman, Nick Vienna, Dan Crane, Floyd King. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Dec. 31 at the Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit http://www.shakespearetheatre.org.

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