It is not hard to see why directors want to update period plays to make them more palatable to modern audiences. Lavish costumes and long-gone settings can be alienating to some theatergoers — not to mention threatening to a company’s budget! But of all the eras in which to set The Beaux’ Stratagem, the apotheosis of Restoration comedy with all its luxury, elegance, and extravagance, why choose the 1970s, the decade that taste forgot?
And yet, Jaki Demarest’s adaptation for the Rude Mechanicals at the Greenbelt Arts Center works, for the most part, due to the gameness of the actors and the surprisingly modern themes of George Farquhar’s 1707 script. This production is the latest in a series of “WandaVisioning” of classic comedies as TV sitcoms of different decades: the Country Wife in Manhattan of the 1950s, The Belles’ Stratagem in the 1960s, and now The Beaux’ Stratagem in the 1970s. This resetting primes the viewers for the comedy and allows in mid-century TV tropes to make the jokes more accessible. This approach also preserves the country-versus-city humor of the original without the actors having to summon up English country accents — Kentucky drawls fill in.
The plot, such as it is, is almost beside the point. Two short-of-cash friends, Archer and Aimwell, plan to take turns playing master and servant to entice rich women to marry them so they can make off with the women’s fortunes. Archer and Aimwell wind up in an inn in Lichfield, Kentucky, that is actually itself run by crooks who have ties to local burglars. The would-be romance scammer actually falls in love with his intended target, and his buddy with her miserably married best friend, who is trying to make her husband jealous, while the innkeeper’s daughter, sent to pump the latter for information, falls in love with him. For some reason, there is a French “reverend” running around in a mask. Hijinks, as they say, ensue, culminating in an attempted robbery of the rich lady’s house, foiled by the heroes, and all end up more-or-less happily paired off.
One of the highlights of the show is surprisingly well-developed and sympathetic female characters. Women’s Lib was a burning issue in the 1970s, and this show fits that ethos quite well. The wealthy benefactress Mrs. Bountiful (Marianne Virnelson), her daughter the heiress Miss Dorinda (Spencer Dye), the barmaid Cherry (Caroline Adams), and particularly Mrs. Kate Sullen (Melissa Schick) all have strong personalities and independent spirits. Cherry and Kate especially show unexpected agency — Cherry turning out to be the most successful thief of the lot, and Kate espousing some very unusual views of matrimony, with a rousing speech (that is somewhat undercut for laughs by a kazoo accompaniment).
The men create some memorable characters, too. Tommy Hegarty’s Aimwell is an amusingly dim upper-crust romantic with a somewhat unstable English accent. His friend and partner-in-con Archer is indeed arch, smooth, and somehow simultaneously natural, nervous, and seductive. Scott Farquhar makes Kate’s unhappy husband, Jeremiah, more than just a mean drunk, even showing flashes of integrity. Joshua Engel, too, makes the sleazy innkeeper with the southern drawl charming.
All of the actors make the playwright’s original 18th-century language sound quite natural, which is no mean feat.
The story is rollicking and amusing, but this Beaux’ Stratagem is also full of small treats that have little to do with the script. In place of fights with swords, as the original would have required, fight choreographer Rin MacDonald stages these with pillows printed with “POW!” and “WHAM!” à la the late-1960s Batman TV show, accompanied by the music from the Star Trek fight between Kirk and Spock complete with a set of Vulcan ceremonial bells! Such modern cultural touchstones evoke the in-jokes now lost on us that would have entertained original audiences.
Although there is some pleasant live harp and banjo music by Diana Dzikiewicz and Eric Honor, one element that doesn’t do much to enhance the production is a few randomly inserted 1970s song-and-dance numbers. Besides the inherently embarrassing nature of disco music for anyone who lived through it, there is a reason why musicals are structured as they are — characters break into song when speaking is no longer enough. Unrelated musical numbers for joke value alone provide more interruption than amusement.
The production values, by choice and/or necessity, wallow in the low-budget 1970s. The set by Jaki Demarest and Alan Duda remains almost unchanged from the previous Greenbelt Arts Center show. The double glass doors center still show the painted balustrade from Arcadia behind, there is the same stage right door, and the only addition is one new one stage left. Scene changes are indicated by a pop-art poster in a frame being turned around, and, for some reason, a blanket and pillows with the same image being spread on a day bed. There is a drinks cabinet that folds up into a bookcase, and two kitschy period hand-shaped chairs that get hidden by floral covers when required. Spencer Dye’s thrift-shop costumes extend to wrap dresses for the women and white leisure suits and polyester shirts for the men. It is all rather cheesy, and whether that is atmospheric or disappointing is a matter of taste.
Overall, Demerest’s interpretation shows thought and humor and brings a worthwhile classic comedy to light in the hands of a capable cast. How much the setting helps or hurts depends on one’s affection — or tolerance — for the “glorious, mod 1970s.”
Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours with one 15-minute intermission.
The Beaux’ Stratagem plays through April 1, 2023, presented by the Rude Mechanicals in residence at Greenbelt Arts Center, 123 Centerway, Greenbelt, MD. For tickets ($24, general admission; $22, senior/military; $12, child/student), phone the Box Office at 301-441-8770, go online, email [email protected], or buy at the door.
COVID Safety: You will be required to wear paper or cloth masks in all areas of the facility, at all times. You must wear a mask even if you have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Click here to read the venue’s current COVID-19 Policy.