Oliver Goldsmith’s 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. "She Stoops to Conquer" runs in rotating rep on The Hill outdoor stage in Spring Green through Sept. 20.
The humor in this play as it's written – and it is very funny – comes from juxtaposing opposites: a forward young woman and a tongue-tied man; city folks and country folks; an arranged match that turns out well and one that’s disastrous; the older generation battling for control with the younger; the differences in dress, speech and mannerisms between the upper and lower classes; long trips that go nowhere and directions that intentionally mislead. The comedy in the production is heightened significantly by excellent, energetic performances by the ensemble cast and staging by Gordon that never misses an opportunity to augment these conflicts between opposites.
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 has been 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 in real life who isn’t bothered by his lack of ambition or direction, merely his lack of freedom.
As his doting mother, Sarah Day is back center stage. Relegated to roles as elderly maids and dowager aunts in recent seasons, she fully embraces everything ridiculous about Mrs. Hardcastle in this plum role, from spoiling her son Tony 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.
But with a multitude of red velvet bows decorating yards of green striped fabric, she resembles a Christmas tree more than a fashion plate. (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 sputtering, seething and 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 Hardcastle "cracks" is pure genius. (Watch out for flying furniture.) Fortunately he 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 very poorly, since Marlow is paralyzed with anxiety whenever he talks to someone of 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 wore 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 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 (a delightful 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.
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 for raucous music. The ensemble includes two violins, a guitar and a bodhran (Celtic drum), backing up strong vocals by Josh Krause. Enjoy it during the show, then follow the musicians out into the "lobby" space after the performance for an encore.