The Beaux' Stratagem
The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington once again demonstrates its mastery of witty comedy with a sparkling production of The Beaux' Stratagem. Director Michael Kahn keeps his cast moving like clockwork, in and around a modular James Kronzer set that breaks apart and reassembles itself to create a succession of locations.
George Farquhar's play dates to 1707, but the Shakespeare Theatre's production is the world premiere of an adaptation begun in 1938 by Thornton Wilder but never finished, and recently completed by contemporary farceur Ken Ludwig. The dialogue crackles, the characters engage the audience's interest and sympathy, and the whole thing seems almost effortless.
The convoluted plot concerns two well-born but currently penniless young men, Jack Archer (Christopher Innvar) and Tom Aimwell (Christian Conn), as they go fortune-hunting in the English countryside. Aimwell finds Dorinda (Julia Coffey), the thoughtful daughter of Lady Bountiful (Nancy Robinette), while Archer becomes entranced with Kate (Veanne Cox), unhappy wife of Lady Bountiful's drunken son, Squire Sullen (Ian Bedford).
Farquhar and his adapters set up a humorous counterpoint between the socially acceptable way for a man to gain a fortune, through marriage, and less respectable methods of acquiring wealth. Boniface (Drew Eshelman), keeper of a roadside inn, is not the innocent soul he appears to be, and the conniving Gloss (Rick Foucheux) finds a way to justify the lowest of impulses. And, just as Dorinda and Kate stand up to Aimwell and Archer, the rogues also are faced with a woman who proves herself more than their match: Boniface's daughter, Cherry (Colleen Delany).
Cox brings a delightful, bone-dry delivery to Kate's weariness and exasperation; she's a cultured, educated woman trapped by a society where women had few options, and determined to take any advantage she can find. Innvar is every bit her equal with his sometimes exaggerated facial expressions and robust physicality. Coffey and Conn are perhaps less bumptious, but just as well balanced a couple.
Robinette creates another charming and hilarious comic portrait as Lady Bountiful, a well-born woman who fancies herself a healer. She shows genuine pleasure at the prospect of performing an amputation or using forceps while helping to deliver a baby, and is beside herself with joy at the prospect of sharing her experiences with Dorinda and Kate.
Unlike some productions of period comedies, this one never seems buried in the trappings. Robert Perdziola's costume designs are becoming and colorful without ever stealing focus from the dialogue or the performances.
The play was controversial in its time for its suggestion that mismatched married couples should be allowed to divorce by mutual consent. The last act, where Sullen and Kate air their complaints before an informal court, delves rather more deeply into these matters than one might expect.
Shakespeare Theatre Company