Thursday 25 October 2012

She Stoops To Conquer doesn't quite, but amuses much

Sex always sells. And that's why though it's nearly 240 years old, Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer withstands the ravages of time as comedy-cum-farce. When sexual hypocrisy is the core conceit, people giggle large. That's because sexual hypocrisy is visceral and core in all of us.

In the current ACT mounting, SSTC pops a cork fizzing good fun that only occasionally gets too cutesy for its own good such as the pee-in-the-woods piece and the hag's dance. But the script is pure cheek -- it is not meant as satire in the manner of Oscar Wilde's Earnest, just goofy harmless fun.

The plot is straightforward enough. Country squire Hardcastle, a rustic and charming old blatherer, wants his "princess" daughter Kate to marry well. He prevails on uppercrust London chum Sir Charles Marlow to have his son Chas-the-younger come "suit" Kate. Then, as now, city folks want to try out country charades, bumpkins want to play at pomp-&-circumstance.

Trouble for the squire's plans for Kate is that Junior is a stammering yammering idiot around young ladies of his own age and class. Kate is bored silly of him. But if the women are of bawdy peasant stock, earthy and flirty, well young Chuck seems to rise to the occasion with as much lech as any other frat-boy. Every local tavern has barrels of them.

Through a series of plot and character set-ups, Kate ultimately "stoops" to young Chuck's level, masquerading as a barmaid to bring out his randy self. And as in most comedies of manners, it's mistaken identities on various levels that propel both the characters and the plot along. Junior and his buddy George Hastings, thanks to prankster Lumpkin, think Squire Hardcastle's estate is just a traveler's country inn and the squire but its bourgeois proprietor. They therefore treat Hardcastle as servant and take his digs completely for granted. Fop-snobs do so with their *lessers*.

The har-har factor of such "shocking misconduct" as this in Blighty's class-driven 18th century world would have resonated mightily with Goldsmith's patrons. But even for Downton Abbey gawkers like us, it provides lots of sniggery. Of course plays such as this also need foils, sub-plots, and trick-timing to work. Goldsmith provides them all, particularly in the character of Hardcastle's squawkish wife Dorothy.

The "Mrs." schemes to have her son by an earlier marriage, said Lumpkin, marry his cousin Constance and get all her jewels by way of dowry in the bargain. Lumpkin is a dissolute prankster in love with his lumpy self, his horses, his pints, and his tavern maids -- he's got no candle to carry for her nor she him. So in an amusing parallel romantic plot, Goldsmith has Tony redeem himself by conspiring to have the horny Hastings win Con's hand -- and gems -- at Mom's expense, lit.-&-fig.

Reading the play led me to numerous dictional delights plus no end of Zounds! and Pshaws! and throat-clearing Ahems! and Egads!  Watching the play produced a somewhat different response for two reasons.

(1) Director Dean Paul Gibson advised in an ACT interview he feels the key to making Goldsmith relevant to contemporary audiences is "Pace. Pace. Pace."

(2) Most of the players tried their bloody hardest to affect some manner of Brit accent in their speech. Though no speech coach, I'd say the results were mottled to not-so-much. Horse-&-buggy dialogue that rips along at autobahn speeds in faux-accents makes discernment of speech considerably more effort than it should require, alas. Too bad, because live theatre is speech by and large.

Still, Norman Browning as Squire Hardcastle is nearly note-perfect in his indignant bafflement throughout. Chris Cochrane as Lumpkin almost steals the show in all respects : dialogue delivery; stage business with body and hands; mischievous booby of a character more brass than class and oh-so-fun. As Hastings, Jay Hindle brought his A-game to play both hitting his words and fielding just the right body language. Luc Roderique as Junior was nuanced and steady and a convincing cad throughout.  As Mom Dorothy, Leslie Jones had moments of jovial outrage but was directed too far toward farce for my liking. Jennifer Macwhinney as Kate exchanged charming repartee with Dad, but I found her not coquettish enough with Chuck : she needed better barmaid clothes and demeanour, both. Melissa Oei as Constance delivered a nice blend of proper and coy.

Kudos to the servants, one and all, who doubled not only as buffoons but as set-changers and chorus on a pop-up knock-down set by David Roberts that did the trick. Special mention to Rebekka Sorensen and her threadmeisters for costumes that were some of the best I've witnessed on any Vancouver stage over the decades.

SSTC will appeal to history buffs, students of play- and stagecraft, and to lovers of all things Brit.


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