By Michael H. Margolin
The Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s production of Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th century “She Stoops to Conquer” has been cleverly updated to 1957, which, at first, does not seem felicitous. But when Lady Hardcastle rises in her madly printed, many crinolined dress you think, yes, this is a period of excess and works very nicely, thank you.
We have a television set at stage front, and at the rear a huge picture window that brings the outside in and allows a fair amount of spying into the main room, also a clever way to honor Goldsmith’s plot of conniving, deceit and, well, the fun of watching people make fools of themselves. Jeromy Hopgood made the good design into a successful reality. By the way, the central set is complemented by two scenes played in the local inn and “at the bottom of the garden” successfully delineated by lighting designer Diane Fairchild.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think all Restoration comedies or comedies of manners need to be taken out of their context. But in this case, Robert Kauzlaric, the director, has used some trickery on his own part to make the plot seem pleasantly vintage, but a wee bit closer to home.
In this updating, the characters seem just fine in vintage costumes of the era, nicely done by Aly Renee Amidei – such as the flounced skirt and shirred bodice of Lady Hardcastle’s dress, and even the gardener, barefoot and clad in only a pair of overalls.
The meat of the matter is, of course, the challenge for the actors to recite Goldsmith’s lines and make them seem apt. There is great success here: Goldsmith was not so much a poet as he was a chronicler of people thrown into the thick of the plot and working their way out. We don’t go around quoting Goldsmith, but we remember the good laughs and the actors speak the speech nimbly.
The Festival has put together a talented group of actors who know their way around the stage.
At the head of the crowd are the Hardcastles, played with verve by Alan Ball and Amy Montgomery: He wants his daughter married to Charles Marlow, coming for a visit. She wants her niece, Constance, married to her son Tony Lumpkin and her inheritance of lots of bucks in family jewels, therefore, kept in the family.
Ball has a wonderful scene in Act Two – a hissy fit that draws appreciative applause from the audience. He has reached his limit with the behavior of his guests, Charles Marlow and friend George Hasting, who have been misled by Tony into believing the Hardcastle’s home is an inn and treat their hosts with disdain. One of the main themes is how badly the privileged treat the less privileged (which might even be a metaphor for our times).
Young Marlow, the potential bridegroom, is played with suavity by Benjamin Reigel, who has the good sense to make him a bit of a likeable boor, though handsome and well turned out in his three button suit. His moues of embarrassment – well grimaces, actually – when truth after truth is uncovered and he realizes his folly, are just right.
His opposite, the glamorous Kate, is played by Melanie Keller with relish for her role as a spoiled daughter and a housemaid – to tempt Charles into romance she must help him overcome his phobic reaction to women of his own class.
Tony Lumpkin, who puts the plot into motion with his misdirection, is played by the excellent Caleb Probst with an outlandish pompadour and what appears to be a padded midsection. His elaborate spoof of the mischievous brat is softened by his mother’s machinations: As he tells her, he is her son so he comes by it naturally. And, yes, that does seem to be an Elvis impersonation – which, with his tummy and white T-shirt above selvedge jeans, is a neat cultural reference.
The sweet Constance – loved her flatties – was nicely drawn out by Destiny Dunn. Her paramour, Hastings, was played by Brandon St. Clair Saunders with brio: One rooted for him in his determination to have Constance and her trove of jewels.
The assorted servants and Mr. Marlow – Charles’ father, who appears out of thin air – were well done by Paul Riopelle, Janet Haley, Wesley Scott, David Helmer, David Blixt and Rick Eva, several of whom doubled for characters in the very funny scene at the Three Pigeons inn where Tony sets the young wooers on their misadventure.
In particular, John Byrnes, as the driver for the Hardcastles, gave a quirky performance with a great deal of athletic staging – jumping, somersaulting and so on. I don’t know why, but I liked it.
When all is said and done, a couple of hours spent in the ’50s is a welcome relief from the electronic mayhem embracing our current war-torn and scandal embracing times. Yes, dammit, life was simpler.
‘She Stoops to Conquer’
Michigan Shakespeare Festival at Potter Center’s Baughman Theatre on the campus of Jackson Community College, 2111 Emmons Road, Jackson. Plays in repertory through Aug. 11. 2 hours, 15 minutes. $12-36. 517-796-8600. http://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com