Friday, October 26, 2012

Review: (Vancouver) She Stoops to Conquer

Jennifer Mawhinney and Melissa Oei. Photo by David Cooper.

She Stoops...SHE CONQUERS!!!
by David C. Jones
It was tough going off the top of She Stoops to Conquer. Written in 1773 the language is archaic and it did not help that at the beginning, stepping around David Roberts 2-D set, was a chorus of servants (played with goofy charm by John Voth, Christine Quintana, Sebastian Kroon, Paul Kloegman and Christina Well Campbell) singing “wha wha blah wha wah wha plah twist”.  Couldn’t understand it but it was a pretty harmony. Then when the actors came out we are still trying to wrap our ears around the language. As with many older plays much of Act One is all about setting up the premise and it is not until the later acts that the plot and conflict really start gearing up.
Well-to-do Mr. Hardcastle (played with world-weary bluster by Norman Browning) and his wife the social climbing Mrs. Hardcastle (the hysterically certifiable Leslie Jones in a welcome return to the stage) are trying to marry off their kids. Lay-about drinker and “awkward booby” Tony (Chris Cochrane) is ordered to marry his cousin Constance Neville (Melissa Oei) - mainly so Mom can keep Constance’s jewels - and daughter Kate (Jennifer Mawhinney) is to meet with Charles Marlow in hopes they will hit it off. The problem with both plans is: Constance and Chris both are interested in other people and Mr. Marlow gets all tongue-tied around high society women feeling more comfortable flirting with lower classes. One of the many merry mix-ups and deceptions in the classic Laughing Comedy is that Kate will pretend to be a maid to put Marlow at ease. She will stoop to conquer.
how do you make a production of this ilk compelling? 

One of the drawbacks with these period comedies is even with all the wacky misunderstandings and sneaky plans to deceive we know 1) they all come unraveled to everyone’s horror and 2) things will all turn out for the best for the good guys and the bad guys will be left wanting. So since we know that is going to happen how do you make a production of this ilk compelling?
Well-respected and clever director Dean Paul Gibson tackles this dilemma in two ways.  Inventive staging such as a giant map backdrop with stick puppets marking the travels of Mr. Marlow and his friend George Hastings through the countryside. Surprise music stings with violins and singers at surprising moments and a pop up fireplace add to the fun. He also has an impressive way with most of his diverse cast. Of particular note: Luc Roderique as Charles Marlow – all upper class swagger and a bit of a Lothario around lower class women but naively lost around women of status. He is so innocently lost in confusion it is very charming. Melissa Oei as Constance was intensely cunning and hilariously shocked when things fell apart. John Voth and Josh Drebit as two of the simple-minded servants are also stupidly funny.
The fact that Mr. Gibson has his actors plum the depths of high stakes truth made the silly plot have much more impact. When the quartet of Marlow, Constance, Chris, and Tony realize to their horror their plans are coming undone the actors bring such earnestness the scene is quite involving. 
Some of the actors make simple or obvious choices that bland them out compared to others; especially the veteran scenery chewers Jones and Browning. So the play sags in spots making the journey sometimes uneven. Their focus is more on mugging and big physical comedy as opposed to wit and manners.  
Finally, though, when you have these many inventive funny people the effect is grand and silly – sometimes a little exhausting but mostly it made the two hours and 25 minutes fly by.

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