Review: 'She Stoops to Conquer' by extremes
Hooray for hyperbole!!!!! When it works, it's the wind beneath the wings, to quote a song that works with plenty of it. (When it doesn't, the effect can be ruinous.) Quintessence Theatre Group's production of the classically comic "She Stoops to Conquer" uses hyperbole to turn a bare-bones production – lovely costumes by Jane Casanave but a set so minimal, there's no scenic designer – into a full-blown one.
It works. Oliver Goldsmith's 240-year-old play about love, confusion and deception – it premiered in London three years before America announced its nationhood – takes place in an old and rambling estate house, which generally gives set designers a reason to go hog-wild. The house is important to the play, because it's mistaken by two young men for an inn, a blunder that sets off the entertainment.
If you're not equipped with the lavish house, you'd better make the play sing through its own text, which is the tact Quintessence takes. Goldsmith helped – he wrote a comedy that seems modern and even fresh, once you overlook the obvious boost it gets from class pretensions that even Britain, where it's set, doesn't have anymore. In the Quintessence interpretation staged by the company's artistic director, Alexander Burns, Goldsmith's characters are finely drawn, then stretched to reveal their weaknesses or to exploit their most obvious traits.
E. Ashley Izard, the primary example of this, plays the controlling, avaricious woman of this house with a personality that branches out to include wonderfully funny extremes. When her husband, played by John Preston, is treated poorly by two gentlemen who believe he's an innkeeper and not a home-owner, his signs of dismay grow larger until he sputters like an overheated machine.
When young Kate, daughter of the homeowners, wants to trick one of these gents into believing she's just a common girl, Sonja Field moves the character's speech from high-handed Britain to low-cut Brooklyn; she sounds like some of the people you hear on the L-train on their way to Canarsie. The guy she's fooling is played by Josh Carpenter, whose character calls for painful bashfulness with upper-class women and presumptuous brassiness with common ones, and Carpenter pushes the edges there, too.
So at times – not all the time, for good measure – this version of "She Stoops to Conquer" plays out with thickly colored exclamations points that accent these characters and bring out the best of Goldsmith's script. That may be true in other productions I've seen to some extent but here, the play's really the thing, and not its accessories. So the script is really all we have to go on and the hyperbole stands out. (Burns, the director, also did the sound design of incidental harpsichord music that does much to set us in the era.)
The play's full name is "She Stoops to Conquer, or The Mistakes of a Night," and the second title is more to the point. The plot centers on a young man named Marlow (Carpenter, charming in the role) who, with his friend George (Daniel Fredrick), comes to the Hardcastle estate. They are out to woo, or at least meet up with Hardcastle's daughter (Field, with the touch of a siren) and young ward (Rachel Brodeur). But when the two men mistake the place for an inn, they treat Hardcastle himself (Preston) like a servile innkeeper.
In addition, poor Marlow has a hang-up: Women of his own class intimidate him no end, but common women turn him into a hotshot. So Kate Hardcastle poses as a barmaid to attract him -- she stoops in order to conquer him.
Throw in a devilish Hardcastle son (Sean Bradley), and the over-the-top Mrs. Hardcastle (Izard) and you've got yourself the precursor to a situation comedy series today: "Hardcastle Hotel." It's earthy and amusing throughout in the Quintessence production, which is being done in repertory with "Hamlet." That's a strange match-up, something like maple syrup and hamburgers. Then again, nowadays that combo's on a restaurant menu somewhere, I've read.
"She Stoops to Conquer" runs through Nov. 24 in a production by Quintessence Theatre Group at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. The play runs in repertory with "Hamlet." www.quintessencetheatre.org.