Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Stratford at its peak

When a play production fires on all cylinders, it can be likened to any kind of moving masterpiece that inspires wonder - say, a finely-tuned Porsche racing car going 175 mph.

The Stratford Festival's current offering of The Beaux' Stratagem is just such a complete piece of theatrical joy that you want to savor the experience even as you're enjoying it. In fact, the gentleman from Connecticut sitting next to me was back for a second time.

George Farquhar's 1707 script is the first Restoration comedy produced at Stratford since 1995 and the description refers to the return of Charles II to the British throne in 1660 and the re-opening of the theaters after the Puritan reign.

The story begins with the classic device - a stranger rides into town. Only this time, they're two strangers - London gentlemen named Archer (Colm Feore) and Aimwell (Mike Shara) (nearly all the names are puns) who've blown through their fortunes down to the last £200 and desperately need to find rich wives. "There is no scandal like rags, nor any crime so shameful as poverty," says Archer. The two have hit the road alternating the roles of master and servant. The alternative? Go sign up with the Duke of Marlborough's men and fight the French.

Colm Feore as Archer
Photos/Michael Cooper
More suited to the boudoir than the battlefield, they find a pair of lovely ladies, sweet Dorinda (Bethany Jillard) and her sister-in-law Mrs. Sullen (Lucy Peacock), unhappily married to the drunken Squire Sullen (Scott Wentworth). The household also includes the dotty Lady Bountiful (Martha Henry), someone we'd describe as a naturopath today, obsessed with healing herbs.

The gents take up residence at an inn run by the scheming Boniface (Robert King), with his whip-smart daughter Cherry (Sara Farb). An actual gang of highwaymen in league with Boniface arrives to rob Lady Bountiful's household and comic chaos ensues.

One of the many triumphs of this production is director Antoni Cimolino's sure hand with both the rapid wit of the script, the genuine sweet heart at its core and the physical comedy of the situations.

Lady Bountiful attempts to heal Aimwell.
The performances, scene changes and music (by Stratford Director of Music Emeritus Berthold Carriere) crackle with speed and energy.

Patrick Clark's clever set design, with elements carried on and off by the cast, beautifully alternates between inn and estate.

Among the standout scenes: Feore smoothly wooing an amused Peacock as they regard the mansion's gallery of paintings.

As both play director and the festival's artistic director, Cimolino has attracted a cast of all-stars. Feore and Shara are coolly charming rogues, until their hearts are really touched by love. Jillard gives Dorinda some real spine and Peacock radiantly communicates Mrs. Sullen's desires and regrets.

For the great Martha Henry, there are no small parts. Whether she is brandishing a large cucumber or entering prepared to fight the housebreakers clad in half a suit of armor and waving a giant sword, the entire audience is helpless with laughter.

In the wonderful scene in the photo above, Aimwell (on chaise) has faked a fit in order to get access to Dorinda (at right) as Mrs. Sullen (left) and Archer (center) look on, and Lady Bountiful practically pumps his arm off as part of her healing arts.
Scott Wentworth as Squire Sullen

Giving credit to the depth of this cast, Scott Wentworth makes Squire Sullen both repellent and subtly sympathetic since he, too, is trapped in a marriage he hates. Evan Buliung as Count Bellair (there's a company of French officers under house arrest at the inn - of course) creates a ridiculously funny comic accent without offensiveness.

Gordon S. Miller's Scrub, servant to the Bountiful household, is a genuine riot of obsequiousness and anxiety. Actors who have had lead roles in other Stratford productions - Chick Reid and Tara Rosling - here make their marks in the minor roles of a countrywoman and a gipsy. Michael Spencer-Davis' fraud of a clergyman, Foigard, makes the most of a variety of accents as the character unconvincingly takes on several nationalities.

At this Sunday matinee, my friend from Connecticut, his wife and I remarked on the number of empty seats - perhaps one-fourth of the auditorium - that were evident on what one would think would be a popular day and time.

The festival has twice extended King Lear, also starring Feore, but there should be an equal rush for tickets to The Beaux' Stratagem, which, let's face it, has a lot more laughs. Go see it now.

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