She Stoops to Conquer

Story-telling conquers in She Stoops

I know what I’m supposed to see in She Stoops to Conquer. The man who wrote the play, Oliver Goldsmith, also wrote an essay arguing that if we couldn’t convince playwrights to quit flirting with the virtues of private life and get back to sneering at its vices, we’d lose the art of laughter pretty soon. The essay tells me, more or less, that I should see the heroine as a metaphor for theater itself, which has to earn its living with its hands, so to speak, if it wants to keep its feet on the ground.

But the actors and directors at The Blackfriars Playhouse aren’t big on metaphors for theater. They like to tell stories.

The Cast of She Stoops to Conquer.(Photo by Michael Bailey)

The Cast of She Stoops to Conquer.(Photo by Michael Bailey)

This play is the story of a woman from a fancy family who discovers that the man she’s supposed to marry is the kind of man she’d like to marry only when he’s with the kind of woman that you don’t take home to mom. Women of his own class — that is, legitimate potential partners — make Marlow feel so insecure that he can barely speak, so Kate pretends that she’s a barmaid, not an heiress, hoping he’ll forget his fears and treat her to some fun. The obligatory identity confusion is provided by Kate’s step-brother, Tony, who tells Marlow and his wing-man that their destination, The Hardcastle Estate, is too far away to reach that night, so they’d best seek lodging at the big house on the hill, which is in fact The Hardcastle Estate, but he tells them it’s the Buck’s Head Inn. Thus the table is set for trouble — or what might pass for trouble in the genteel eighteenth century.

Phony trouble, in other words. The sort of thing that might have cracked a guy up in 1773 — but 240 years later? Those contrivances aren’t funny anymore, if ever they were, so why are dozens of theaters all over the country producing She Stoops to Conquer in 2013?

Maybe it’s because the play suggests that women get the job done more effectively than men. Maybe it’s because you can see the play as theater trying to save a certain kind of theater, though not the kind that gets its strength from theater metaphors.

This production gets its strength from director Jim Warren’s unfailing ability to find the people who are all but hidden under the contrivance.

He gets help from excellent actors. Gregory Jon Phelps makes the two faces of Marlow’s character fit so well together that watching him is like seeing both sides of a coin at the same time. I left the theater thinking that there must be a name for guys who long for an appropriate partner but don’t believe they deserve one, so they soothe themselves with people who have no real business in their lives. He and Lee Fitzpatrick, who plays Kate, work especially well in their long scenes alone together, which have the never-look-away effect of long shots in a movie.

John Harrell, who plays Tony Lumpkin, tavern denizen and spoiled apple of his mother’s eye, somehow makes waiting for your trust fund to mature seem like a burden no one should be asked to bear without a drink, or several drinks, and a couple of dirty songs. Harrell speaks and moves slowly, as if he can’t imagine a reason to rush, as if every thought deserves an extra second, and that slower pace sucks in the frantic energy of other actors like a gravitational field. The Texas drawl that he assumes when he decides to mess with Marlow, just for fun, has no place whatsoever in the world where he’s supposed to live, but he’s tired of that world already, and he wouldn’t go across the street to keep things in their place.

Recommended
She Stoops to Conquer
Closes November 29, 2013
American Shakespeare Center
Blackfriars Playhouse
10 South Market Street
Staunton, VA 24401
Tickets: $18 – $48
Schedule varies
Details and Tickets
For all its first-rate story-telling, the production does step back and think about itself from time to time. Like all shows at The Blackfriars Playhouse, this one features a musical interlude at intermission — the actors, in costume, on the balcony performing contemporary numbers that reflect the theme or mood of the material. Ben Curns, for example, dressed as Mister Hardcastle, singing “I’m Easy Like Sunday Morning,” sounds like an actor poking his character in the ribs. And the entire ensemble — cello, violin, banjo, guitar, snare drum, clarinets (Rene Thornton, Jr. in all his dignity and Tracie Thomason in her lovely face) — playing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” all fifteen minutes of it — “is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?” — opulent theatricality!

And Kate delivers an epilogue at the end of the play that throws the theater-about-theater metaphor back in our face. All our life is a play, she says, and just as she has stooped to conquer — and succeeded! — so, too, the author has conquered his audience and struck a victory for comedy as it was meant to be. But halfway through her manifesto, Harrell pushes her aside and finishes the dirty song he started in the tavern. “I hate your face and this hell of a place, but it’s better than drinking alone,” he sings. “It’s better than drinking alone.”

And everybody in the house sings with him, because he’s right, and because thinking about theater might be kind of fun, a little, sometimes, but bar songs are the cat’s ass!

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She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith. Directed by Jim Warren. Featuring Benjamin Curns, Lee Fitzpatrick, Allison Glenzer, John Harrell, Emily Brown, Chris Johnston, Josh Innerst, Tracie Thomason, Jim Sailer, René Thornton Jr., Gregory Jon Phelps, and Dylan Paul. Costume design: Jenny McNee. Produced by The American Shakespeare Center. Reviewed by Mark Dewey.

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