July 10, 2005

'She Stoops to Conquer'

They came, they stooped, they conquered

By Mark Langton
IJ Correspondent

If seizing any opportunity to go for what is deliciously “low” in the endless comic possibilities of Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th Century comedy of manners, “She Stoops to Conquer,” now at the outdoor Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University, then the Marin Shakespeare Company stoops indeed. And does so with all the wild abandon and studied grace of two lords out on a wenching spree.

Superbly cast, with gorgeous period costumes and a solid, inventive set, creative director Robert S. Currier more than lives up to his reputation as a director who is at his best when doing comedy, keeping his actors in constant motion with necessary speed. Nothing kills this kind of comedy quicker than slow pacing, and it is a tribute to the director and his company that there are no stragglers.

Goldsmith was an Irish-born, Scottish- trained doctor who became friends with Samuel Johnson and turned to writing at the age of 29. Before his death at 46 he wrote one play ("She Stoops to Conquer") and one novel ("The Vicar of Wakefield") that have stood the test of time. Along with Sheridan, a fellow Irishman, Goldsmith changed the course of English theater from the polite and sentimental plays of the day to taking a satirical swipes like this one at the snobbery of polite society, an influence that continues to this day. It would be hard to imagine Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell (“The Importance of Being Earnest”) without Oliver Goldsmith's Mrs. Hardcastle. Indeed, Goldsmith can be said to have set the standard for much of what we now know as drawing room English comedy. Without Goldsmith, there would have been no Stoppard, no Coward, no Ayckbourne -- or, for that matter, no Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night.”

The plot turns on young Charles Marlowe, a London swell (played by Darren Bridgett) traveling with his friend George Hastings (Paul Sulzman) to the country house of the Hardcastle family, where he is to meet the young woman to whom he is betrothed.. Through misunderstanding and mischief, Marlowe mistakes the Hardcastles' house for a country inn, his host for the innkeeper, and his intended for a maid.

Hardcastle (George Maguire) is the second husband of Mrs. Hardcastle (Phoebe Moyer), father to their clever daughter Kate (Deborah Fink) and stepfather to her grown, but developmentally-delayed, son, Tony Lumpkin (Jonathan Gonzalez).

Hastings, meanwhile, has been the secret suitor of Constance (Kate Dunlop), Hardcastle’s ward, and their love affair forms a complicated sub-plot involving inherited jewels and bungled carriage rides.

Forty-year stage veteran Maguire, whose Hastings appears to be based on Hugh Griffith's Squire Western in "Tom Jones,” is an absolute joy to watch onstage. In fact, in an inspired use of of the amphitheater’s space, Maguire even steals a scene from near the top of the bleachers, where director Currier has him ambling along picking flowers while the main action takes place elsewhere.

As Mrs. Hardcastle, veteran actress and drama coach Moyer, simply put, classes up the joint. I have seen this remarkable actress twice now, and in two Anglo roles, done so accurately I was astonished to find her American-born. In Pacific Alliance Stage Co.’s recent “Dancing at Lughnasa,” where all around her were gesticulating wildly in mere caricatures of the Irish, Moyer gave a dignified and restrained performance, her fists clenched at her apron as a truly repressed, real Irishwoman would. She is similarly authentic here doing quite the opposite, her gestures fluid and huge, her caterwauling hysterical and the strangled dialect of a social-climbing squire’s wife spot-on.

The comic tour de force of the evening, however, was Bridgett’s young Mr. Marlowe. Credible as the gadabout with a split personality – painfully shy when courting women of his own class but adept with barmaids – his gift for physical comedy made his first stammering, fumbling meeting with Kate the funniest scene of the play. When he talks to her, his self-loathing is so acute that he appears to be batting away his feeble words with his hands as if they were bats flying about his head. He is utterly unpredictable in the way the early “Bobcat” Goldthwaite was unpredictable when he first arrived in Bay Area comedy clubs. Only instead of deconstructing the clichés of standup comedy, it is the clichés of slapstick that are deconstructed here. Dick Van Dyke would have been proud.

Fink is equally enticing in her split personas as the gentleman’s daughter who wisely determines she must woo Marlowe as a barmaid, quite literally “stooping” before him to polish something, advantageously displaying her bustle.

There were a few missteps, but none worth mentioning. The rest of the cast performed admirably. Worthy of note is Gonzalez’s Tony Lumpkin, colorful and Liverpudlian in his mischief making, bringing to mind a cross between Beatle George Harrison and Who drummer Keith Moon. I would lose the song in the beginning, though. Those early English drinking songs always look awkward and forced, and Gonzalez, bless his heart, can’t sing a note.

Sulzman makes the foppish Hastings quite likeable, particularly in improvised scenes with Bridgett and the audience over a glass of wine, and Dunlop is suitably strident as Constance. Christopher Hammond (Sir Marlowe) --and a clearly talented Marin Shakes intern, Gregory Moore (as Diggory) round out what is an altogether solid cast.

Avoiding the sentimentality of his contemporaries, Goldsmith flew in the face of convention with this play, but managed to nevertheless achieve a tone that is still genial without resorting to treacle. Steeped in the pre-romantic style of the French farce, with its eavesdroppers behind curtains, action on different tiers and heads popping out of doorways – even breaking through the invisible “fourth wall” to acknowledge the audience -- “She Stoops” is a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theater that proves you can get away with breaking the rules sometimes. Providing you do it well.

Marin Independent Journal
Photo courtesy of Marin Shakespeare Company