Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Restoration Comedy is a Dazzling Satire of 17th Century Morals
Freed has combined and adapted two coarse 17th century plays about marriage and fidelity. She has mined the colorful wit and sexual intrigue of John Vanbrugh's The Relapse and Colley Cibber's Love's Last Shift. This hilarious two-act travesty shines a humorous light on society and sexuality as lovers, liars, philanderers and fortune hunters each play their own version of the game of love.
As the play begins, a delicate 17th century dandy (Chad Deverman) in an elaborate outfit of white satin breeches, gaudy white jacket and white wig goes to the harpsichord and starts to play. Even when his hands leave the keyboard the sound of the piano continues. As the Narrator and dressed properly for a 17th hunk, Elijah Alexander gives the audience a prologue of what to expect during the next two hours and forty minutes. He explains that Loveless, also played brilliantly by Elijah Alexander, is a runaway scoundrel husband who has frivolously spent his money on loose women and is now returning to London, having heard that his virtuous wife has died. The Narrator exits the stage and comes back in acting like a drunken fellow.
The wife, Amanda (Carolyn Kozlowski), is still alive and hopes that her husband will return to her. Amanda's close friend Mr. Worthy (Kaleo Griffith), who is secretly in love with her, advises Amanda that the husband will never return because of her virtue. He advises her to be every bit as immoral as Loveless. The dialogue between them is ferociously funny. Her change to immorality pays off with a delightfully comic liaison between husband and wife.
In the second act, Loveless backslides after three years in the country being faithful to one woman. They return to London where he finds the pleasure of sex with other women while Amanda is also tempted to stray. Things heat up when Loveless meets the sexually receptive Berinthia (Marcia Pizzo). This leaves Worthy, who is still yearning for Amanda, to finally make his move to have Amanda for his very own.
Restoration Comedy contains a frivolous subplot in both the first and second acts. There is air brain Narcissa (Bhama Roget) with an up market squeaky voice who is hot to trot with Mr. Worthy. The comic subplot in the second act involves stock characters that you would see in the 17th century farces. Two brothers seek the hand of rich Irish virgin Fistula (Bhama Roget). Sir Novelty Fashion (Danny Scheie), a fop (he paid 10,000 pounds for the title), vies against his younger and unfashionable brother Young Fashion (Alex Alioto) for the right to marry Fistula. This is the crème de la crème of over the top hilarious acting.
Sharon Ott has assembled a superb cast of inspired comic actors who all give radiant performances. Elijah Alexander (New York Metamorphoses and Shopping and Fucking) as the superbly lecherous Loveless gives a magnetic, flawless performance with the playwright's impeccable comical speech. Kaleo Griffith (many roles at Berkshire Theatre Festival) as Worthy is wonderful playing the straight man to Alexander's buffoon. He gives a great performance and is convincing in his secret love for Amanda.
Danny Scheie (Nicholas Nickleby and Merry Wives of Windsor at Cal Shakes) as Lord Foppington is a pure delight. He revels in enormous wigs and outrageous pink and green get-ups. His unique speech reminds me of a cat in heat with words like "Madam" sounding like the purr of the animal. It is a high nasal sound that is absolutely side spitting.
Caralyn Kozlowski (New York's Murdering Marlowe) plays the role of the virtuous wife Amanda, the role she created in Seattle. She is glowing as the high-minded torn wife. Bhama Roget (Seattle actress) repeats her portrayals of Narcissa, Fistula and Hoyden. She has a captivating voice as Narcissa in the first act, like a dumb blonde you would see in Broadway musicals like Guys and Dolls. She changes completely in the second act to a young Irish heiress trying to pick the lock of her chastity belt. It is a delectable exhibit of athletic comic acting. Marcia Pizzo (Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice at Cal Shakes) who plays Berinthia is enticing as the vamp who loves to tease the opposite sex. She is a perfect match for Mr. Loveless.
Director Sharon Otts has drawn terrific performances from all of the supporting performers, even those in the roles that seem insignificant. Ron Campbell (many solo performances both in Los Angeles and the Bay Area) and Sharon Lockwood (has played in every regional theatre in this area) portray several show-stopping characters. Campbell brilliantly portrays a hapless servant, a robust parson, lecherous matchmaker and brash squire. He gives a tour de force of comic acting. Lockwood also has several roles; she is is pushy as a society lady who loves to tattle on persons of society and does a complete about face in the second act as a brazen country Irish crone. Rowan Brooks (Nicholas Nickleby and The Tempest) also provides stalwart support in his role of Lory.
Set Designer Hugh Landwehr has a field day with sets that look like they are out of William Hogarth prints. The set is all black and white with humorous touches such as a pop-up harpsichord in dazzling white, a stuffed cow, and a cardboard traveling carriage that gets larger as it goes across the stage. Costumes by Anne R. Oliver are flamboyant in bright colors. Peter Maradudin's lighting design is ethereal. Even the hilarious harpsichord solo by Stephen LeGrand and Eric Drew Feldman at the beginning of the show is marvelously accomplished.
Restoration Comedy plays at the California Shakespeare Theatre, Bruins Amphitheater located at 100 Gateway Blvd. Orinda, CA through July 30. For tickets, call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org. Filling out the Cal Shakes season will two Shakespeare plays, The Merchant of Venice opening on August 9th and As You Like It on September 13th.
Photo: Kevin Berne