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Friday, 12 June 2015

Review: She Stoops to Conquer fails to conquer the audience

She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith
Directed by Martha Henry
Designed by Douglas Paraschuk (set), Charlotte Dean (costumes), Louise Guinard (lighting), Todd Charlton (sound / composer)

Maeve Beaty as Kate Hardcastle.
Photo by David Hou

"What just happened?" one wonders, as the curtain falls on the opening performance of She Stoops to Conquer last Thursday night.  

The restoration comedy by Oliver Goldsmith is one of the most popular from that period, it has been re-staged at Stratford three times previously.  It is a charming piece about class and hypocrisy, set in a time of elegant fashion (for the upper class) when playwrights and audiences were rebelling against the melodramatic sentimentality that had been the norm upon their stages.  Goldsmith's play even begins with a prologue suggesting that his play is meant to resurrect the dying muse of comedy (Thalia, in case anyone cares).

Unfortunately the production was only able to conjure up the muse of mild amusement (Charmian?) at best; at worst, the muse of indifference (Meh).  The pace was slow, some scenery was chewed but most telling of all - no opening night standing ovation. In recent years at Stratford the standing-O has become the norm rather than the exception - especially on opening nights - so the lack of one is something close to devastating.

But why? The play, the director, the cast, the costumes, the set - all promising foundations, and yet the production cannot bear up.
L-R: Karack Osborn as Tony Lumpkin, Lucy Peacock as Mrs. Dorothy Hardcastle,
Andre Morin as Diggory and Sara Farb as Constance. Photo by David Hou.

Perhaps it is because we have seen Lucy Peacock play the overbearing, overly hysterical mother-figure before (last year's Hay Fever, for instance), as well as Joseph Ziegler as the befuddled father. They are undoubtedly good at it, and while it must be nice for them to have a break from the intensity that is Anne Frank's story, one gets the feeling that this is nothing new for either of them.
Perhaps it it because the resolution between Kate and young Marlowe is less satisfactory as played by Maeve Beaty and Brad Hodder. Mr. Hodder is most believable as the haughty Marlowe, not the timid Marlowe. His performance lacks the credibility of the newly humbled and reformed, and yet the clever Kate (delightfully played by Ms. Beaty) still falls for this hypocritical dolt. It is hard for the audience to celebrate their matrimonial joy.

Perhaps it is because one finds themselves drawn to the character of Tony Lumpkin, as played by Karack Osborn. Tony is a lout full of spleen and mischief and is clearly not meant to be the hero of the play but Mr. Osborn commands the audience's attention in a way his co-stars do not, and therefore Tony is the character one roots for, not Marlow.  I would not call his performance upstaging, either - Sara Farb as his squabbling cousin Constance does her best to keep up with him, but where Mr. Osborn is assertive, Ms. Farb is shrill. Most strange.  Just as strange is that Tyrone Savage, playing the lead in the subplot, does so with far more sincerity than the other romantic lead.
L-R: Brad Hodder as Young Marlow, Nigel Bennet as Sir Charles Marlow,
and Joseph Ziegler as Mr. Richard Hardcastle. Photo by David Hou.
Perhaps it was because the production's best laughs came from the antics and looks of those without many lines - Gareth Potter, Andre Morin, Paul Rowe and Lally Cadeau. Cast as the dimwitted, untrained servants, Misters Potter Morin and Rowe form a background comic trio who eagerly try to impress their boss and guests and fail miserably at every turn but succeed in keeping the audience in stitches; Ms. Cadeau plays the housekeeper / maid to perfection - professional in every way, only sharing her eye-rolling derision with the audience, appreciative of something genuinely funny.

I confess, I have not figured what it was that kept myself and rest of the audience from rolling in the aisles. The play reads funnier and more quickly than played, and it is still relevant - the terms are now "1%" and "working poor" instead of upper and lower class, but it should still tweak some feeling of recognition with modern audiences. Alas, I fear Thalia must allow Chris Abraham's Shrew to play her physician in this case.

She Stoops to Conquer continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 10th.

Karack Osborn as Tony Lumpkin.
Photo by David Hou.

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