The Beaux' Stratagem: Theater Review
Pasadena's A Noise Within premieres this reworking of a 1707 comedy of manners about a pair of English frauds.
A Noise Within completes its first full year in its new large Pasadena house with the West Coast premiere of The Beaux' Strategem. Jack Archer and Tom Aimwell, two impecunious swells from London (Blake Ellis and Freddy Douglas), hit the road for the provinces where they take turns impersonating a gentleman and his footman in search of securing their fortune through marriage to a wealthy heiress. Themselves counterfeits, they encounter all manner of rogues, thieves, drunks and hypocrites as their impostures appear to fool no one, yet, since as they tell the audience upfront and repeatedly that this is a comedy, all does indeed end well.
George Farquhar, impoverished and near death before the age of 30, was importuned to write this final work which achieved untimely posthumous financial success. An adventurous Anglican Irishman, he had intended to marry an older widow for her money and instead found himself duped into supporting her and her three children. The Beaux’ Stratagem (1707) was a hilarious screed against uxoriousness and the burdens of marriage for both sexes, even as it embraces passionate seduction and true romance so long as both are perpetuated with impertinence and wit. Rarely produced commercially, an adaptation of the play for modern audiences was commenced by Thornton Wilder in 1939 at the peak of his success after Our Town but abandoned halfway through (it had been intended for Brian Aherne and Edith Evans on Broadway). Discovered in 2000 by his literary executor Tappan Wilder, Ken Ludwig, a veteran re-upholsterer of older farce forms (Lend Me a Tenor, Crazy for You, Moon Over Buffalo), undertook to complete the task.
While one might well have preferred a staging of the original text, certainly the adaptation goes down smoothly for those more accustomed to the Broadway comedy of the last few generations. The opening scenes with crooked innkeeper Boniface (Apollo Dukakis), his saucy daughter Cherry (Alison Elliott) and Gloss (Time Winters), a highwayman and burglar moonlighting as a preaching parson (a Wilder invention), seem to promise a gloss on The Beggar’s Opera. But this plot strain quickly fades once we are introduced to the household of moneyed Lady Bountiful (Deborah Strang), who works as the local quack. There is also her eligible daughter Dorinda (Malia Wright), her alcoholic lout of a son Sullen (Robertson Dean) and his profoundly alienated wife Kate (Abby Craden), who endures exile from fashionable London after a humiliating failed betrothal.
As best as one can tell many decades after having read the play, a remarkable amount of Farquhar’s brilliantly pointed language survives in the occasional speech, while the archaisms and florid dialogue has been spruced up to fall easily on today’s ears. The original convoluted plot has been both streamlined and amplified with further complications, and the acerbic attitudes are expressed with more accessible locutions and a less antique sardonicism. In the manner of current comedy stylings, some lame shenanigans are folded in, more to assuage the reflexes with the familiar mechanics than to generate the bigger laughs, the best of which derive from the source.
This kind of show falls squarely within the established expertise of this company, and all the actors dine ravenously on this kind of meat. Their impeccable timing and swagger are equally at home with the Restoration tradition and the adaptation’s commercial broadness. In a sense, they are asked to simultaneously act in two distinct vocabularies, both verbally and physically, and they are nearly always fluent. They serve up the kind of well-mixed cocktail that could well instill a taste for some of the straight-up stuff.
Venue: A Noise Within, Pasadena (runs through May 26)
Cast: Blake Ellis, Freddy Douglas, Abby Craden, Alison Elliott, Malia Wright, Time Winters, Robertson Dean, Deborah Strang, Apollo Dukakis, Joel Swetow, Alan Blumenfeld
Director: Julia Rodriguez-Elliott
Playwright: George Farquhar, adapted by Thornton Wilder and Ken Ludwig
Set designer: Michael C. Smith
Lighting designer: Meghan Gray
Sound designer: Doug Newell
Costume designer: Angela Balogh Calin
Fight choreographer: Ken Marckx