ASC’s She Stoops To Conquer stands on comic timing

Lee Fitzpatrick in the lead role of the scheming Miss Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer at the American Shakespeare Center. Lee Fitzpatrick in the lead role of the scheming Miss Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer at the American Shakespeare Center.

With a tilt of her head and a cascade of red curls, Kate Hardcastle considered her suitor across stage. “You’re so great a favorite there, you say?”

“Yes, my dear,” Young Charles Marlow grinned, determined to prove to this beautiful barmaid his popularity at the Ladies Club. Swaggering toward the stage right audience, he looked us up and down. “There’s Mrs. Mantrap,” he said and gave me a knowing wink. “Lady Betty Blackleg, the Countess of Sligo…”

I missed his list of supposed conquests as I turned the color of Miss Hardcastle’s curls.

We think of escapism in cinematic terms, as a requisite plunge into blackness that trains all our senses on flickering projection and a big screen. At the American Shakespeare Center, the world itself changes. Universal lighting, a Shakespearean staging condition, means the lights never dim. The show never stops, and you, delicate audience member, are part of the script.

In the ASC’s production of the 1773 comedy She Stoops to Conquer, the fourth wall was gone and I was the butt of playwright Oliver Goldsmith’s jokes. Not for long, of course, because Marlowe had yet to realize the barmaid he courted was actually the gentlewoman to whom he was betrothed—the same Miss Hardcastle whose elegance and good standing made him so nervous he hardly spoke to her.

In a three-sentence summary, the plot of She Stoops sounds suspiciously antiquated. A young man’s modesty fails to charm the lady in whose home he comes to court. The hero’s impudence incenses the young lady’s father when he mistakes the gentleman for an innkeeper. Throw in a scheming cousin, her lover, a mischievous stepbrother, and…hilarity ensues?

Yes. Yes it does.

Lest you think I’m the sort of English major who LOLs at Chaucer, know that Goldsmith’s pithy script belies its 250 years. Snappy dialogue uncovers contemporary concepts like true love, strong women, and overbearing stepparents. The writer termed it a “laughing comedy,” which director and ASC co-founder Jim Warren described as “amusing rather than telling an audience what to feel; it reveals man’s ridiculousness rather than his distresses” and, in a departure from typical 18th century tropes, “often spoofs and lampoons elements of sentimentalism.” No shrinking violets or dashing rakes here (not in the typical genders, anyway). She Stoops to Conquer offers a brand of humor both fresh and side-splitting, especially in Warren’s modern incarnation.

While certain turns of phrase may be more at home in the 18th than 21st century, Warren and his professional troupe use every tool at their disposal to translate for a modern audience, including arched eyebrows, funny voices, and contemporary cadence. Every gesture and squint and unhappy frown hits with tightly choreographed comic timing.

As the long-married-and-suffering Mr. Hardcastle, Benjamin Curns does not bear his strife in silence. He strides around condemning impudence and frippery, building steam like a teakettle or Steve Martin in Father of the Bride.

Allison Glenzer, his wife, uses physical comedy to great effect. Pursed lips, slumped shoulders, a mincing gait tell us as much as her high-pitched affectations or heaving fury.

Lee Fitzpatrick, who plays the spunky Miss Hardcastle, convinces us that she’s both in love and somehow in on the joke, and her multi-faced suitor, Gregory Jon Phelps, transforms in an instant from mumbling boy to libidinous man.

As spoiled Hardcastle heir Tony Lumpkin, John Harrell is by turns perfectly annoying and annoyed, throwing small tantrums and leading drinking songs with lyrics like I hate this place/And your stupid face/But it’s better than drinking alone. I especially loved it when he and his cousin Constance Neville, played by the talented Emily Brown, bickered and slapped at each other like siblings until forced to pretend to be in love.

The obvious talent of its 12-person troupe dawns on you when you realize these actors fill every role in the season’s five plays. In addition to playing multiple characters—
a.k.a. “doubling,” another Shakespearean condition—each actor can sing or play instruments, performing songs before, during, and after the show from a narrow balcony above the stage.

A live soundtrack that starts before the audience enters is only one way in which the Blackfriars Playhouse feels like nowhere else. Wooden hoops propping up candles are suspended as chandeliers from the ceiling; stadium-style chairs flank three sides of the stage. As the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater, the building “draws audiences to the Shenandoah Valley from all over the world, year-round,” said ASC marketing manager Christina Sayer Grey.

Twenty-five years after its inception, the ASC is completing its first full cycle of Shakespeare’s 38-play canon with this winter’s production of Timon of Athens. Despite the company’s dedication to the Bard, each ASC season includes non-Shakespearean works. When selecting 2013’s mix of comedy and tragedy, Grey said, “we thought that the madcap feel of the show would fit right in with the celebratory feel of the whole 25th anniversary year.”

The company was right. She Stoops to Conquer is not only clever, but fun—the sort of show that makes your cheeks hurt. Spared soupy sentimentalism, this romance is a romp, one that upends classic conditions and propels the plot with delight. We meet a heroine who liberates her hero and another who refuses to flee, choosing to face her and her lover’s enemy face-to-face.

As I perched on my stool, watching Marlow strut by, I felt the blood move in my cheeks. His misdirected charm, Miss Hardcastle’s irony, the way we held our breaths for the next punch line: I believed this was theater as Shakespeare and Goldsmith intended it, immersion to amuse and prompt self-awareness. In the round of our minds, we’re all drinking alone, but this was so much better.