Review: ‘She Stoops To Conquer’ at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

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Hurry to see a vibrant and uproariously funny production of a classic comedy. Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, “at home” in a converted downtown bank building, which, for historic reasons, retains certain of the bank’s original features, in a thematically congruent move, mounts She Stoops To Conquer, largely set in the residence of a certain Mr. Hardcastle, which, for plotting reasons, resembles an inn.

Anna DiGiovanni and Elana Michelle in She Stoops to Conquer, now playing at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Anna DiGiovanni and Elana Michelle in She Stoops to Conquer, now playing at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

She Stoops To Conquer was written by Oliver Goldsmith, a contemporary of Samuel Johnson. Johnson reportedly praised the comedy for “making an audience merry,” as the fashion was “high comedy,” a theatrical construct in which the playwright showcased inconsistencies of humanity, crafted witty dialogue, and did not write intending opportunities for guffawing, presumably so nobody’s wooden teeth would fly out mid-guffaw and get stuck in a fellow theatre-goer’s wig. (How embarrassing!) Goldsmith, on the other hand, wrote specifically seeking guffaws, chortles, chuckles, snickers, and hoots, and evidently had nary a care for teeth nor wigs.

Since its 1773 debut, She Stoops To Conquer has pleased two centuries of audiences. The show reached 1910 cinemas as a silent film, television as a 1971 BBC production, and onstage in London in 1998 as a musical production, The Kissing Dance. The script, awash with polarities and the resultant gap, features themes curiously relevant nowadays.

The converted relic retains two stately columns and a magnificent ceiling. There’s seating on three levels, though for this performance, no guests occupy the topmost level. The seats, which I find awkward and clever simultaneously, are three-person benches, seat numbers prominent on red upholstery. The first row snuggles two sides of the stage with discomforting enthusiasm.

Director Ian Gallanar inspires his diverse ensemble to extremes of physicality, augmenting the lively verbal banter. The cast flourishes, using facial expressions, gestures large and small, tone of voice and other unscripted actor embellishments, ensuring that despite the heightened “fancy” language, the audience is along for every joke and misunderstanding. Kathryn Moncreif’s Dramaturgy seems comprehensive, and her notes in the Programme are informative.

A musical interlude prefaces the show, setting up for instrumentation and vocals throughout. The theatre’s Managing Director Lesley Malin is beautifully brittle and sharp as Mrs. Hardcastle, while Ron Henneghan as Mr. Hardcastle is roundly blustery. Anna DiGiovanni as Kate, the “She” of the play’s title, capably manages the challenge of playing a character who plays another character, with unintended results. She and the patrician Brendan Edward Kennedy as Marlowe have excellent chemistry. Elana Michelle, as Constance, the subplot’s heroine, is expressive, fluid and lovely to watch. Her reluctant suitor, Tony Lumpkin, played by Elliott Kashner, annoys and amuses in equal parts. Kashner treads delicately: his character particularly is made to seem ridiculous, and a lesser performer could make a cartoon of him. In Kashner’s hands, Tony’s buffoonery unravels gradually, revealing an unsuspected depth and zig-zag logic. Threatening to steal the show with well-timed clowning is Gregory Atkin, playing Diggory, a household “treasure.”

Lesley Malin and Elliott Kashner in She Stoops to Conquer, now playing at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Lesley Malin and Elliott Kashner in She Stoops to Conquer, now playing at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The unamplified actors are delightfully audible, enunciating every word of every line, with specific character accents rather than the “generic English accent” which I suspect is used by no one beyond American actors. The variety of British accents used by characters of differing classes, rustic and urbane, helps clarify customs and issues in the world of the Hardcastle family.

This show’s technical production values are high. Though the lighting array appears sparse, the results are effective at setting place and time. The furnishings look terrific (though I do tire of my uninterrupted view of one particular chair); costuming manifests wonderful details including accurate buttons, wig adornments, and assorted shoes. The set is a versatile construct, one massive wooden panel with curtained cubbies, like an antique version of Laugh-In, plus various mobile pieces that are removed, rearranged and replaced by performers and musicians while performers play and sing. Scenic changes are therefore somewhat prolonged, but also charming.

Audiences have the opportunity to engage in pre-show conversation with Amy Froide, Ph.D., UMBC professor of British and women’s history, on Saturday, October 6th.

Fans of farce, repartee, romance, physical comedy, and antique folk tunes will relish this classical gem. In short, secure your teeth, wrap your wig, and get ready for a good guffaw. Chesapeake Shakespeare does justice to a perennial favorite and delivers on the promise of a “laughing comedy.” This is a fanciful, funny production, in a quirky, creative space and is in every way a treat for eyes and ears and soul.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including intermission and musical interludes.

She Stoops To Conquer plays through October 21 at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. Shows are Friday nights and Saturday nights at 8 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., and in October, Thursdays the 11th and 18th, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, call the box office at 410-244-8570, or go online.

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