SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER (Quintessence): A contemporary 18th-century comedy

Josh Carpenter (as Marlow), Sonja Field (as Kate Hardcastle), Ralph Edmonds (as Sir Charles Marlow), John Preston (as Hardcastle). Photo by Alexander Burns.

Josh Carpenter (as Marlow), Sonja Field (as Kate Hardcastle), Ralph Edmonds (as Sir Charles Marlow), John Preston (as Hardcastle) in SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER. Photo by Alexander Burns.

SHE STOOPS is an 18th-century comedy of manners and mistaken identities by Oliver Goldsmith. It is considered by many to be the most enduring of 18th-century plays (name another you’ve heard of), perhaps because of the relative compactness of its structure, the levity of its themes and its bizarre but believable characters. Young Charles Marlow (Josh Carpenter), a man who is shy with ladies but tyrannous to servant (and servant girls) is misled into believing his father’s honored friend is an innkeeper, and his sparky, ravishing daughter a barmaid. Hilarity ensues.

Quintessence director/artistic director Alexander Burns has chops. This is clear from the opening moments in his canny rewrite of the now-obsolete SHE STOOPS prologue; actor Daniel Fredrick, all false innocence tempered with taunting sneer, laments the decline of theater (we’ve been complaining about this for three centuries), and actors’ purses, in favor of Facebook and Sunday football, and urges the audience to tweet about the show, all in finely-constructed verse.

Despite its lasting appeal, I don’t need to say that 18th-century manners comedies can be tedious; this one is two and a half hours long (in comparison to the one and a half hour Hamlet running in rep with the same actors), and lumbers ponderously towards a predictable happy ending (everyone does the right thing; everyone gets married). To make the play palatable, Burns’s cast bring swagger and big risks to Goldsmith’s unbalanced characters.

Josh Carpenter (as Marlow), Sonja Field (as Kate Hardcastle) in SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER. Photo by Alexander Burns.

Josh Carpenter (as Marlow), Sonja Field (as Kate Hardcastle) in SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER. Photo by Alexander Burns.

This is something that can be said of all of Quintessence’s productions; they may not always have much to say, but their actors are as watchable as a gang of peacocks, and take more risks than anyone on the Walnut stage would even consider, tempering naturalism with a passion for presentational wackiness. Thus E. Ashley Izard as Mrs. Hardcastle (an 18th-century Hyacinth Bucket) teeters back and forth from delight to heart-struck ululation. John Preston, playing her beleaguered husband, stutters and hops and shrieks as he is driven to distraction by his rude guest. This is a laugh-out-loud kind of show.

Quintessence runs a repertory ensemble in the style of the Globe, and has added a new similarity to that theater: a Shakespearean courtyard theater. A raised platform for the players, with raised seats on either side and a pit for the groundlings to stand in and watch the show, looking up at the actors. Thus, you can see their shows for $10, if you’re willing to stand. October 17-November 24, 2013, quintessencetheatre.orgTickets here.

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About the author

Julius Ferraro

Julius Ferraro is a journalist, playwright, performer, and project manager in Philadelphia. He is co-founder of Curate This and editor-in-chief of thINKingDANCE. His recent plays include Parrot Talk, Micromania, and The Death and Painful Dismemberment of Paul W. Auster.