Sunny Comedy at Villanova University: THE BEAUX STRATAGEM

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

Villanova’s celebrated theatre department has brought a unique collaboration to their Vasey Hall stage. THE BEAUX STRATAGEM was written by George Farquhar in 1707 at the height of the Restoration Period. Following the Puritans ban on anything considered frivolous, such as music and theatre, the Restoration Period brought a new type of comedy to the stage. Closely related to Moliere’s Commedia dell’ Arte, works by Goldsmith, Wycherley and Farquhar’s Stratagem set the stage for modern drama as we know it today. Sadly, Farquhar died the night of a benefit performance of his work for the Queen. He never saw his second play reach success; THE BEAUX STRATAGEM has been one of Britain’s most performed comedies for over 200 years. In the fall of 1939, Thornton Wilder (Our Town) started an adaptation of the play to make the language more accessible to modern day audiences. By the end of that year, Wilder gave up on the adaptation to write The Skin of Our Teeth. He never returned to Farquhar’s work. Fortunately for today’s audiences, Wilder’s nephew found the version amongst his uncle’s papers in 2004 and approached Ken Ludwig (Lend Me A Tenor) to complete the work. As a result of this unusual “partnership,” 21st century audiences can enjoy this utterly sunny comedy.

Kimberly S. Fairbanks as Lady Bountiful, Tom Saporito as Scrub in a scene from Villanova University's THE BEAUX STRATEGEM.

The story deals with Tom Aimwell and Jack Archer, two fashionable beaux on the lookout for an heiress to marry so they can repair their fortunes. They are travelling about the English countryside in search of young heiresses to dupe. To help their scheme, Archer poses as Aimwell’s servant when they arrive in the little village of Lichfield—taking up residence at the inn of one Mr. Boniface, leader of a band of highwaymen. [It is interesting to note that Farquhar wrote THE BEAUX STRATAGEM while staying at a hotel in Lichfield. He used the proprietor and members of his family and staff as models for some of his characters. The hotel is still in business today—it is operated by the Best Western organization.] Aimwell insinuates himself into friendship with the beautiful Dorinda, daughter of Lady Bountiful. Meanwhile, Archer strikes up an extremely worldly friendship with Kate, Dorinda’s sister-in-law. She’s unhappily married to Sullen, a parody of a country squire, mad for hunting and eating and (especially) drinking.

Obstacles to a happy ending include the facts that: Kate’s husband despises her; that the innkeeper’s saucy daughter, Cherry, has fallen in love with Archer; that Lady Bountiful, who is extremely over-protective of Dorinda’s virtue, mistakenly believes herself to be a great healer of the sick; and that a band of brigands plan to rob Lady Bountiful that very night.

Director Shawn Kairschner has drawn subtly calibrated comedic performances from his gifted cast (even the requisite “please turn off your cell phones” speech was fun). As the young lovers, Charles B. Illingsworth, IV (Aimwell), Stephanie King (Dorinda), Tim Rinehart (Archer) and Felicia Leight (Kate Sullen) are all exceedingly engaging. They deftly navigate the manners of the 1700s while entertaining 21st century audiences. Michael Jansen (as innkeeper Boniface) and Jessica O’Brien (as his “friendly” daughter, Cherry) are wonderful embodiments of the classic country rustic. Personal favorites were Chris Serpentine as the drunken Squire Sullen (his speech about marriage was a true gem), Kimberly S. Fairbanks as Lady Bountiful (her use of her voice to play with the dialogue was hilarious, as was her glee at the prospect of a possible amputation) and Brendan Norton as Foigard—“a French person anxious to perform a wedding.” He gave us a cross between Alexis Arquette in The Wedding Singer and Peter Cook’s clergyman in The Princess Bride that was just priceless. Rounding out the company—and giving solid support—are Daniel Ciba, Danielle DeStefano, Seth G. Martin (who gave the aforementioned curtain speech), Tom Saporito, Barbara Quinn, Rebecca Dulac, Rob Towarnicki and Dustin Karrat.

Which brings us to the design team…..

During my tenure as a Barrymore nominator, I saw a number of Villanova productions. The Vasey is an unusual performance space with unique challenges. A very deep thrust stage (think bowling alley), it requires ingenious design work to overcome its obstacles. Jeremy W. Foil’s set design is lovely and clever if one is sitting in the main portion of the audience, but if you’re on the sides—especially house right—his central staircase (jutting straight out for about six feet) obscures roughly 75% of the action for that portion of the audience. The same held true for the scene wherein the curtained four poster bed was placed in roughly the same area as the stairs. However, the other scenes work quite well and the scene changes are cleverly executed and well rehearsed. It is a shame an alternative placement of the needed staircase was not discovered. Or perhaps if the upstage wall had been able to be moved back about 2 feet or so, the sightlines would have been greatly improved for those viewing the production from the sides.

The rest of the design work was wonderful. Janus Stefanowicz, Villanova’s stalwart costume designer, has once again delivered well-detailed 17th century ensembles for each member of the company. Her choices of colors and patterns were lovely. Another Villanova regular, Jerrold R. Forsyth’s lighting compliments each scene beautifully. Even the scenes in the “dark” were lit just right. Jenny Jacobs has created a lovely dance at the end to lead into the curtain call and wonderful period music is provided throughout by Melissa Dunphy and Rebecca Dulac. Audiences are treated to violin, flute and harpsichord pieces that are lovely to listen to. And a special mention to John Bellomo for one of the best fight scenes I’ve witnessed in a long time. His use of the space, furniture and actors was ingenious—and the company executes it with great style and panache.

Overall, this is a most enjoyable evening at the theatre. It was great fun to be introduced to a work I was totally unfamiliar with.

by George Farquhar
adaptation by Thornton Wilder & Ken Ludwig
Directed by Shawn Kairschner
November 9—21, 2010
Villanova University Theatre Department
Villanova, PA

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