Fun and Laughter Restored
William Wycherley’s THE COUNTRY WIFE, like most great works of theatrical art, reflects the culture from which it emerged: in this case, Wycherley’s scandalously titillating prose, riddled with devilish double-entendres and humor, exuberantly embodies the values of Restoration England—a restoring of the monarchy and fun. (When the Puritans, headed by Oliver Cromwell, even banned Christmas, the British people—forever the advocates of the ‘sensible’ and ‘even-keeled approach’—restored their Stuart monarch, inviting him back to England from France. Parties, Christmas, dancing and theatre ensued, to the relief and joy of most.) The effect Restoration comedy would have had on its 17th century audience is notoriously difficult to achieve in America—especially Hawaii—where we have no sense of the meaning of a class system. (The idea that some people are rightfully born to rule is a notion almost no American would endorse.) The mores and foibles of an Aristocratic court, the defiant embrace of decadence—these are concepts virtually alien to a modern American audience.
Thus, I have very rarely seen Restoration comedy staged effectively, outside of the four years I spent in England.
Enter director Stacy Ray and script editor Jake McPherson. Together Ray and McPherson cut and trimmed this antiquated 17th century masterpiece to a length manageable and appropriate for a contemporary audience—without losing any of the naughtiness or sacrificing the intricate plot and subplots. What follows is a night of ribald humor, precise and committed acting, sumptuous costumes and categorical, absolute fun—most significantly, the effect on our contemporary audience parallels the effect the original uncut version would have had on its 1675 Restoration audience.
THE COUNTRY WIFE, playing at UHM’s Earle Ernst Lab Theatre, April 24 – 28, begins with a cleverly staged preshow announcement (using characters from the play to establish house-rules.) As Lady Squeamish and Mr. Dorilant, Catherine Restivo-Romito and Bryce Johnston, immediately and skillfully introduce the audience to the world of the play. Then, exquisitely, all the characters in the production appear behind the gorgeous red velvet curtains of Earle Ernst Lab Theatre, in a lavishly rendered dance, choreographed by assistant director Thea Wigglesworth.
The audience seating formation is one of the most effective aspects of the set design, by Laura Nigon-Holmgren: an unusual v-formation underscores the sense of a see-and-be-seen court and transports the audience into this distant time period with its destabilizing impact. Superb and detailed period costumes by Maile Speetjens are unified and use different color-accents to indicate character (orange for the foolish Mr. Sparkish played with tremendous variety and brilliance by Claire Fallon.) Porcelain-white faces, pink cheeks, over-drawn beauty marks and ridiculous wigs by hair and makeup designer Isabella Anderson complete the visual picture.
Dean Mo, Annastasia Fiala-Watkins, Alten Kiakona, Christine Lamborn, Tyler Haugen, Emily Steward and Christine Chang give especially outstanding, provocative and charming performances. The supporting cast (including Samuel Kim, Robert Sanchez, Makenzie Cammack, Jonah Bobilin, Alani Asis and Yunshan Feng) were also committed, focused and strong. Haugen and Steward had several scenes of such mesmerizing humor, I find it nearly impossible to describe the nuance and astounding impact.
THE COUNTRY WIFE, directed by Stacy Ray and adapted and edited by Stacy Ray and Jake McPherson was a rare theatrical gem of wit, titillation and comedic brilliance. Translated perfectly for a contemporary audience, the night flies by with dazzling performances, elegant design, and splendid staging. The artificiality of the period is articulated with commitment, stylistically unified acting and, ultimately, inner truth. Instead of a tediously dated, purely academic exercise in boredom, this comedy of manners retains both the comedy and the manners, enchanting and delighting.
Written by Taurie Kinoshita.