APT's “She Stoops to Conquer” Keeps the Laughter Rolling
Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith wrote She Stoops to Conquer during a topsy-turvy era, around the time England was getting its comeuppance from the rebellious American colonies. This 18th century comedy of mistaken identity, practical jokes and unlikely pairs receives a boisterous, playful production outdoors at American Players Theatre, directed with a delightful eye for the absurd by Laura Gordon.
The first character we meet, the drunken youth Tony Lumpkin (a pitch-perfect Josh Krause), comes barreling down the stairs from the back of the house even before the pre-show announcements have finished advising everyone to keep the aisles clear for just such an occasion. On his way home from another raucous night at the Three Pigeons Pub, Lumpkin is dedicated to pursuing his own entertainment — drinking, subverting the will of his controlling mother (a fantastic Sarah Day), fronting a band that appears each time he sets out on an adventure, and playing practical jokes on unsuspecting gentlemen. Krause, now in his third season at APT, truly shines in this irreverent role — a bad boy rockstar in his imagination and a fairly harmless prankster who isn’t bothered by his lack of ambition or direction in real life.
It’s also delightful to see Sarah Day back center stage, helming a comedy once again. She has been relegated to roles as elderly maids and dowager aunts in recent seasons, but she fully embraces everything ridiculous about Mrs. Hardcastle in this plum role, from spoiling her son rotten, to arranging a profitable marriage for him, to scheming to withhold a fortune in jewels from her niece, Constance (a practical and determined Phoebe Gonzalez). Day also boldly exhibits Hardcastle’s foolishness, including wearing a gown and headpiece the character imagines to be the latest style from London. With a multitude of red velvet bows decorating yards of green striped fabric, she resembles a Christmas tree. (Exquisite costume design by Rachel Laritz.) Her physical comedy skills are also on display in the last act, as Day delivers many of her lines while in a skirmish with a large tree, on a hill off stage left.
As her husband, Mr. Hardcastle, James Ridge also puts on impressive displays of prop comedy and sputtering, seething, exasperation after his esteemed guests — two young men from London — insist on treating him not like their host, but as a common innkeeper. (Who in the house might have given these travelers the wrong impression?) Tension builds over the course of the play to a hilarious tipping point. The scene where he “cracks” is pure genius. (Watch out for flying furniture.) Fortunately, Hardcastle recovers his faculties in time to spy on his daughter, Kate, an effortlessly elegant Laura Rook, as she gets to know a nervous suitor by masquerading as a barmaid.
It seems one of the London gentlemen — Young Marlow (a dashing Jamal James) — and Kate have been promised to each other by their fathers. But their first meeting went decidedly poorly, since Marlow is paralyzed with anxiety whenever he talks to people from his own social class. But give him a hearty wench, and he’s silver tongued and self assured. So when Kate changes from an elegant periwinkle gown that she dons in London, to a simple garnet dress more appropriate for her father’s country estate, Marlow not only notices her; he is fascinated by her.
In addition to changing her clothing, Rook modulates her accent to convince her would-be groom that she’s perfectly approachable. The short lesson on country manners delivered by her maid, Pimple (Jennifer Vosters), sets her on the right path. But Rook’s rustic accent needs a bit more practice.
As Marlow, James is a delightful bundle of contradictions — commanding and smooth when his class gives him the upper hand, but stiff and tongue-tied when answering to a peer, and truly mortified when he discovers he’s been treating his future father-in-law as a lackey.
She Stoops to Conquer has been popular with audiences for hundreds of years, not because it is a brilliant piece of literature, but because it’s funny. And the uber-talented cast, under the whimsical direction of Laura Gordon, finds every opportunity to amp up the laughs to make sure it entertains audiences every minute.
As a final note, here’s to the band! The Hardcastle estate’s motley crew of bumbling servants proves early and often that they have a hidden talent — music. The ensemble includes two violins, a guitar and bodhran (Celtic drum), backing up vocals by Josh Krause. Enjoy it during the show, then follow the musicians out into the “lobby” space after the performance for an encore.