The happy news that comes out of Pallas Theatre Collective’s amiable if uneven production of She Stoops to Conquer is that they prove they can do Restoration Comedy – explosive dialogue, large gestures and all – effectively in a tiny space.
This is no small feat. Restoration Comedy – so called because it was written during the period when the monarchy (and in particular the noted rake King Charles II) was restored after the arid years of the Puritan Republic – is big, obvious, and full of asides. It is almost as though artists of the period were afraid that their audiences had forgotten what plays were supposed to be like during the Cromwell years. Done without care, a production can overwhelm an intimate space like the charming little theater at the Anacostia Arts Center.
Pallas and director AnnMarie T. Saunders, however, do She Stoops to Conquer with care, and to very satisfactory effect. The story is still a big one, grounded in the fastidious social-caste considerations of 17th-century English society. Charles Marlow (David Mavricos) is making a social call on Mr. Hardcastle (Frank Mancino), an old friend of Marlow’s father (Zach Brewster-Geisz). The purpose behind the visit is to see whether Charles would be a suitable match for Hardcastle’s daughter Kate (Laura Rocklyn). Traveling with Charles is his good friend George Hastings (Andrew Keller), who happens to be in love with Constance Neville (Chelsea Mayo), the niece of Mrs. Hardcastle (Melissa B. Robinson). Mrs. Hardcastle, however, has designs to match Constance with her own son Tony (Joel Ottenheimer) from her first marriage. (I know, I know, don’t ask.)
There are a couple of character quirks which operate to push this house of cards over the edge of the table. Charles is almost pathologically shy and deferential with anyone in his own class, but he is a quick-witted Lothario when he mingles with the lower classes. Tony, on the other hand, is a juvenile delinquent in the making, who is charmed with the idea of making life difficult for everyone.
When Charles and George wander into the local pub, lost and looking for Hardcastle manor, Tony gives them directions – but manages to convince them that it is a local inn. Our heroes thus arrive and begin to order poor Mr. Hardcastle about in a peremptory manner. In the meantime, clever Kate, having figured out Charles’ flaw, poses as a barmaid in order to turn him from an unappealing mumbleface into a hot-blooded romantic.
You can pretty much guess what happens after about ten minutes or so, but the pleasure is in watching it being done. And for those of you who watch DC theater for the pleasure of seeing its growth and development, there’s an additional bonus: the emergence of a first-rate actor. Joel Ottenheimer is new to the DC theater scene (he lists some credits in his bio, but it is unclear whether they were college or professional, and a search of our archives comes up empty) but if this is any indication of his capabilities, he will be around for a long time. The secret to doing a show like this right is to make all the bigness seem natural – like the organic outpouring of a credible personality established clearly early and never abandoned. From his very first appearance as Tony, Ottenheimer showed both his malevolence and his playfulness, and at every moment you understand that his bizarre actions come from his complex personality. Honestly, I could imagine Ottenheimer playing Iago on the Shakespeare Theatre stage in ten years.
It is not an easy thing to do, and not everyone does it. I’m sorry to report that I never believed Mancino as Hardcastle. It’s a difficult role; Hardcastle is blustery and eccentric, but has a good heart. Too many times, however, Mancino seemed to be declaiming or gesturing just to satisfy stage directions. I thought he never found the center of his character – a coherent set of personality traits which would make him do the things he did. When Hardcastle was in ordinary conversation, Mancino was fine, but when moved to anger it seemed forced.
The other actors fall somewhere in between. Rocklyn is lovely as Kate, and she takes her character as close to seductiveness as could be credible for a 17th-century woman. Charles is an unlikeable character by today’s standards. He is an obsequious footkisser with his social betters, and aggressively randy with the working folks. But they liked that in the 17th century, and, who knows, they may like it again someday. Mavricos gives Charles’ unattractive qualities their due, playing them straight but not emphasizing them, which is probably the right choice.
SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER
Closes June 1, 2014
Anacostia Arts Center
1231 Good Hope Road, SE
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Saunders has assembled an ensemble of actors (Dane Peterson, Jeremy Hunter, Lily Kerrigan, Emily Sucher and Kathleen Mason) to play the servants and to double as set-changers, and they all acquit themselves well – Hunter, fabulously so in a brief scene as a drunk. For reasons I do not understand, she has placed the play in the rough-and-ready Washington of the Jackson years (1829-37), changing dialogue to do so, but it does no harm.
With a compelling story, production values are sometimes invisible; when you are noticing, say, the set it is usually because your attention is not riveted onstage. With the caveat that this is a compelling story, well played, I am obliged to point out that the costumes are out of this world. Not only are they authentic to the period, they are pleasing to the eye and to the imagination, and in impeccable condition. For this happy development, we owe thanks to Rocklyn, who doubled as the costume designer.
If you are one of those folks whose choices in theater are influenced by ticket price (as I would be, were I not able to see all these shows for free as a result of this reviewing gig), I should point out that tickets to this fine show are only twenty simoleans, and there is on-street parking after 6:30. The Anacostia Arts Center – a clean, well-lighted place with arts and a nice café on the main floor and a small business incubator below – is another piece of the revitalization of a section of the City which has long needed, and deserved, it.
She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith, produced by Pallas Theatre Collective, directed by Ann Marie T. Saunders, featuring David Marvicos, Andrew Keller, Joel Ottenheimer, Frank Mancino, Melissa B. Robinson, Laura Rocklyn (who was also the costume designer), Chelsea Mayo (who was also the props designer), Zach Brewster-Geisz, Dane Peterson, Jeremy Hunter, Lily Kerrigan, Emily Sucher, and Kathleen Mason. Lighting design by A.W. Saunders. Tracey Elaine Chessum was the technical director. Scott Kinkaid, assisted by Ty Hallmark, was the stage manager. Produced by Pallas Theatre Collective . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.