Restoration Comedy by Amy Freed, directed by Sharon Ott, Seattle Repertory Theatre, thorugh January 7, 2005
The Holiday Play. Always a thorny issue within the scheduling of the theatrical season. It is not a time for deep thought or controversy. You can go with season fare - the Christmas Carols and Black Nativities, or you can go for something light and frothy and humorous. The Rep has gone the latter direction to produce a Christmas cookie of a play - oppulent outfits, clever stagecraft, a familiar spice of Rep regulars, and good actors. But the cookie is made of two conflicting tastes, creating a weird admixture in the end.
This is another theatrical chimera in this season that is a hand-off between artistic directors, a new play by Amy Freed (who wrote the appealing Shakespearean romp The Beard of Avon) built on two earlier works. Restoration Comedy is a slamming together of two plays. The first, Love's Last Shift by Colley Cibber, was a sentimental comedy, which spurred in turn The Relapse, by John VanBrugh, which was quickly written, debuted on Boxing Day, ran for but a week in its original production, and has been better remembered by the ages. Freed merges the two into a single, not-necessarily coherent whole.
Love's Last Shift is the first act, which is the tale of a wastrel husband returned to London on the news of his loyal wife's death. Unfortunately for Loveless, the husband, his wife Amanda is alive and wants him back, and to do so intrigues to become his mistress. Under the tutelege of Loveless's friend Worthy, she picks up enough deceptive skills to bed him and bring him to heel, making him foreswear his wicked ways. Virtue triumphs.
Hang on, says VanBrugh, in The Relapse, which is the source for the second act. VanBrugh uses the main characters from the first play to show that the leopard doesn't change his spots, that the problem lies within the wife's expectations, and pretty much blows up the resolution from the first act. The various sources I have present The Relapse as a response, argument, or blastback from VanBrugh, but Cibber himself was in the second play (according to my old Britannica, portraying his creation from the first play, the faddish Fashion Vanity (promoted to Lord Foppington within VanBrugh's work, much as Cibber was promoted).
Its a bit of hairpin turn as far as plot goes. We establish the reality of the characters in the first act, then overturn that (all-too-suddenly) in the second. We go from the triumph of virtue to the easy necessity of vice. The second act (and The Relapse itself) also involves an unrelated subplot of Lord Foppington's brother stealing away the Lord's bumpkin bride, which is sort like the "B-plot" in a sitcom - what do you do with the actors who are not in on the main plot?
The actors, as usual for the REP are excellent. Stephen Caffrey vamps and swaggers through the role of Loveless, who as a character has an arc as tepid as a hamster's heartbeat. Caralyn Kozlowski has more to work with as Amanda, and I think that this revised work more is her story than his. Suzzane Bouchard sizzles as Berinthia, the temptress of the second act, utterly believable and delightful as sensual flirt. REP regulars Laurence Ballard and Bhama Roget hoist a number of comic supporting roles broadly and admirabily. Jonathan Freeman' Lord Foppington makes you smile, but could be even more over the top - while Amanda holds together the two acts, his character has to lash together the two odd halves of the second act.
So, we have a lot of costumes - opulent day coats and gowns, but also heavy on the tight corsets, heaving bosums, and thigh high boots. Delightful eye-candy, but also working against the arguments of virtue in the first act and a celebration of the moral murkiness of the Restoration period. The set design is clever and the play swings amusingly through anachronism, throwing accuracy to the wind (velcro? head mikes?) in order to underscore is un-serious nature.
In the end, it was one of those plays that works well if you don't think too much about what it is saying. Which makes it a relief in the holiday season. But this is a play that almost demands it OWN sequel to wrap up the characters, left in midflight at the end of the play.
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