There’s fun to be had in the Art Club's production of She Stoops to Conquer
By Oliver Goldsmith. Directed by Dean Paul Gibson. An Arts Club Theatre production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, October 24. Continues until November 18
Pick a style, any style. There are lots to choose from in director Dean Paul Gibson’s take on She Stoops to Conquer. Some of them work.
She Stoops to Conquer is a Restoration comedy, which means that it was written in the period after the monarchy was restored in England (1660). The Puritans, who ruled outright for 11 years, had closed all the theatres. When they opened again, the plays that burst forth were all about sex, manners, and beautiful clothes.
In She Stoops to Conquer, the lovely young Kate Hardcastle impersonates a barmaid so that she can win the affection of the dashing Charles Marlow, who—kink of kinks—freezes in the presence of aristocratic women, but turns into a regular Don Juan with lower-class babes.
Restoration comedies are comedies of manners; they lean heavily on language. To play them successfully, you’ve got to respect the text but not let it bind you.
Chris Cochrane, who is playing Kate’s rowdy younger brother Tony Lumpkin in this Arts Club production, gets the approach exactly right. Because Cochrane is so confident and at ease, the language bubbles naturally out of his mouth supported by a constant flow of playfulness and discovery. It’s hilarious to watch his Lumpkin realize what a great idea it would be to tell the young men who are coming to court his sister Kate and her friend Constance that his parents’ house is an inn run by deluded people who think they are aristocrats.
Playing Kate, Jennifer Mawhinney also delivers a very pleasing piece of work. Her portrait feels a little more self-conscious in its stylization. But it’s also winningly intelligent and responsive.
Norman Browning and Leslie Jones take on the roles of Kate’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle. Country gentry, these characters are broadly comic. Oddly, the couple’s accents don’t match in this production; Jones is in control of Mrs. Hardcastle’s fluctuations between her natural rough dialect and her attempts to sound posh; Browning’s accent, on the other hand, is just vaguely English. Both characterizations, though, are funny. Browning is a master at playing outraged pomposity, and Jones… Well, Jones is in a show of her own. Her delivery is so loud and furious it’s as if she’s trying to eat the text alive, but her energetic extremity is almost always funny.
The real problems crop up with the young male suitors. Luc Roderique takes the role of Marlow, Kate’s love interest, and it’s a crazily difficult part. Marlow has a split personality: he is cavalierly overbearing when he thinks he has the advantage and a trembling mass of insecurity when he doesn’t. To succeed as Marlow, you’ve got to find the charisma in both the swagger and the vulnerability. But Roderique seems trapped by the text. He does a better job with the young suitor’s tenderness, but, for most of the evening, his performance is stiff and his line readings deliberate.
Jay Hindle fares better as Hastings, who is wooing Kate’s pal Constance, but my sense is that greater physical containment, more aristocracy, would reveal the character more clearly and serve the text better. In a scene with Jones’s manic Mrs. Hardcastle, Hindle lets Hastings get in an obvious flap. Bad choice: that seat is taken.
Costumer Rebekka Sorensen offers up beautiful finery, including a lavender dress that Kate wears with a mossy pewter jacket accented by a persimmon collar and cuffs.
David Roberts’s set starts off promisingly with stylized greenery, but it goes south with kitschy elements—including a cutout dog—that place the production in a neverland of 17th-century children’s theatre.
It was Gibson’s job to make the show stylistically coherent. He didn’t. But there’s still fun to be had.