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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Mistakes of a Night:
She Stoops to Conquer at Centenary Stage

Also see Bob's reviews of The Good German and Second Line

She Stoops to Conquer
Clark Gookin, Sarah Koestner, Colin Ryan, Michal Slaby (kneeling), Celia Montgomery, Desiree Fitzgerald (looking in from back), and Colleen Smith Wallnau
If Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith himself is to be believed in eighteenth century England prior to the production of She Stoops to Conquer, comedies of a sentimental and fastidious sort (which he found to be insufferably boring) dominated the stage. His Conquer, witty, unsentimental, rambunctious and mocking of the upper middle classes, was an instant success and must have felt like a breath of fresh air in 1773. In the face of the too often witless and overly rude comedies which dominate American cinema today, Conquer can still feel like a breath of fresh air. However, in what is becoming Centenary Stage's annual Fall foray into classical comedy (following Sheridan's The Rivals in 2004 and Moliere's Tartuffe in 2005), director Carl Wallnau finds himself short of the resources necessary to do full justice to Goldsmith.

Squire Hardcastle has arranged with his friend Sir Charles for the latter's son Charles Marlow to visit his home in order to meet his daughter Kate in the hope that nuptials will ensue. Hardcastle's foolish second wife is hopelessly angling to press her niece Constance to marry her loutish and foolish son Tony Lumpkin in order to keep Constance's inheritance (a barrel of valuable jewels) in the family. When young Marlow, accompanied by his friend George Hastings (Constance's true intended), arrives at a local tavern seeking directions, Lumpkin convinces Marlow that he is lost and pretends to direct him to an inn for the night while in actuality directing him to Hardcastle's house. Marlow and Hastings meet Kate and Constance there, and the young women join with Hastings in allowing Marlow to think that they are all staying at an inn.

To cut to the chase, Marlow is bashful and reserved in the presence of women with social standing, and neither he nor Kate are impressed with one another. However, Marlow is quite the "hellfire" ladies man with servants and barmaids. When later, Marlow, who could not look Kate in the eye given her social standing, mistakes the now dressed down Kate for a barmaid, she is taken with the sexuality, charm and clever banter which he displays to her. She determines to pretend to be a poor relation of the Hardcastle family in order to woo and win him. There ensue any number of additional complications to keep the pot boiling.

There is much wit here. One example is Marlow's observation (felicitously and impudently altered from the original text here) that "a reprobate could feign modesty, but I can't imagine a modest fellow could feign being a reprobate."

John Fitzgibbon is delightful as Squire Hardcastle. A relaxed, modest man, comfortable in his own skin, Fitzgibbon's Hardcastle is never more than amiably perturbed whether contemplating his wife's dottiness, trying to shape up his relaxed servants for Marlow's visit or observing the seemingly impudent behavior of the misguided Marlow. Colin Ryan cuts a rough-hewn comic figure as the bumpkin Lumpkin. His manner has a contemporary edge without seeming out of place in this classical setting. Colleen Smith Wallnau is amusing as the off-center Mrs. Hardcastle. However, it is inevitably uninteresting to see Smith Wallnau recycling the mannerisms and vocal flourishes which she has already employed at Centenary in The Rivals and Tartuffe. I would not be surprised if this talented actress felt the same way. Sarah Koestner is a most satisfactory Constance.

Celia Montgomery is a breath of fresh air as Miss Hardcastle. Not only is she appealing and amusing, but her assured classical style befits the most seasoned actor as it belies her invigorating fresh, youthful presence. On the other hand, although Michael Slaby is certainly pleasant enough as young Marlow, he lacks the poise and style required in a professional production. His performance would be more suitable in a community theatre. Essentially, the same can be said for the level of the balance of the performances.

The unit set designed by Scott Aronow represents both the tavern and various rooms of the Hardcastle house with basically only a small chandelier and props providing the differentiation between house and tavern. Although Aronow has done clever work with limited resources, this small set does not match the size and stylishness of the play. Especially lame is the appearance of a center stage overhead blue light to represent an outdoor scene at the back of the garden of the house at night.

Centenary Stage has demonstrated that it is fully capable of producing world class theatre in its small theatre on a college campus in a small town environment. It has done so with outstanding productions of contemporary American plays. In his role as Centenary Artistic Director Carl Wallnau surely must know that he is overreaching in producing Conquer. The theatre's relatively small stage and limited financial resources place what appear to be insurmountable limitations when faced with Conquer's size, scope and style. Although it would be foolish and unfair to blanketly dismiss non-Equity performers, it is notable here that seven out of a cast of twelve actors are non-Equity. It is likely that She Stoops to Conquer (or The Mistakes of a Night) provides sufficient entertainment to please local audience members with relaxed expectations. This surely will include many of the area high school students for whom three special performances have been scheduled.

She Stoops to Conquer continues performances through October 22, 2006 at the Centenary Stage Company on the campus of Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Street, Hackettstown, NJ 07840. Box Office: 908-979-0900. online www.centenarystageco.org/.

She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith; directed by Carl Wallnau

Cast
Sir Charles/Landlord/Dick………Kevin Hauver
Young Marlow…………………Michael Slaby
Hardcastle……………………John Fitzgibbon
Hastings…………………………Clark Gookin
Tony Lumpkin……………………...Colin Ryan
Diggory………………………………..Leon Hill
Roger……………………………...Jeremy Hall
Mrs. Hardcastle…..Colleen Smith Wallnau
Kate Hardcastle………….Celia Montgomery
Constance……………………Sarah Koestner
Pimple…………………...Desiree Fitzgerald
Nancy………………………Danielle Tampier


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- Bob Rendell



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