Wednesday, July 9, 2008
2nd Story Theatre's "The Beaux' Stratagem"
We went to George Farquhar's The Beaux' Stratagem at 2nd Story Theatre this past weekend looking for a restful evening of theater; we left two hours later, breathless and dazed. Farquhar wrote the play towards the end of his short life (he died when was just thirty years old) and by the crepuscular light of the artistically permissive English Restoration: appropriately, the show has a sort of terminal urgency. It is, as the title suggests, all plot, and is as chaotic as a footrace and as brazen as any last, desperate gesture. Disenfranchised rogues Aimwell and Archer, masquerading as a lord and his footman, arrive in a small English town hoping to marry a wealthy woman before being discovered. Archer flirts with the experienced but unsatisfied Mrs. Sullen, whose boorish husband neglects her, while Aimwell deviates from the plan by actually falling in love with Sullen’s naïve sister-in-law, Dorinda. It is hardly worthwhile, by which I mean exceedingly difficult, to summarize the play any further; it is madcap and desultory, and Farquhar deploys his plots with a hustler’s avidity rather than a magician’s elegance. The Beaux’ Stratagem is about speed, not grace. How much, we wonder, will Aimwell and Archer get away with before their ruse is exposed?
The challenge for any cast is finding the sense in the play’s speed and silliness, and, for the most part, 2nd Story’s is up to the task. After a rough start—Farquhar’s language seemed to intimidate the actors; they rushed through their lines as though racing the words themselves—the show settled into a coherent, even rhythm. Tom Bentley and Ara Boghigian, as Aimwell and Archer, portray their characters’ camaraderie as a partnership forged by necessity and intensified by rivalry; their scenes have a terrific push and pull, though Boghigian appeared relieved to make it, uninjured, through some of Archer’s rockier lines. The show’s meter is set by Joanne Fayan, whose Mrs. Sullen is alternately impulsive and recessive. Mrs. Sullen has the play’s few overtly political lines, so her character has traction; but she also has the play’s only moral conflict, so she has real substance, too. Fayan is a graceful actress: she commits unreservedly to her character’s lusts but never resorts to caricature, and interprets Farquhar’s political commentary with as little didacticism as possible. In other words, she finds what makes Mrs. Sullen human: her imagination, bridled by realism and restraint. Ryan Maxwell, as her gap-toothed servant-of-all-duties Scrub, throws restraint to the wind and then delivers his lines as though the squall is still blowing. It’s a manic performance that reminds us that masters and servants live not only in different parts of the house but in different worlds altogether. Maxwell’s dynamism is a startling contrast to Fayan’s composure, and it works; we believe that a paranoid like this, having dispatched his day’s duties, could find some quiet place in the house to stew in his own utterly unbridled imagination. Thank goodness for plots like this; without them, Scrub might simply explode. Mark Gentsch’s splenetic Squire Sullen, on the other hand, is more likely to nod off than to blow up; he despises his wife, but he also enjoys her wealth and can’t summon the will, or spare enough time from his drinking, to get a divorce. Gentsch is dry, understated, and perfect in the role.
In an epilogue appended to some versions of the play, Farquhar’s contemporary, the poet Edmund Smith, asked for the audience’s understanding on behalf of the dying playwright; “Forbear, you Fair, on his last Scene to frown; / but his true Exit with a Plaudit crown.” The play was written under duress, he says, and might be noticeably worse for it; but the life lived under duress, and ended nevertheless in triumph, deserves our praise. It seems unlikely that The Beaux’ Stratagem is about mortality per se, but it is about finitude: by the end of the show, the characters find their plots concluded and their illusions dispelled. Lives, like plots, can only last so long; we trust, like Aimwell and Archer, that we have planned well enough to accomplish all that we intended and that, when the ruse is up, we can take our leave with joy. We can only hope that Farquhar’s “true Exit”—the one that concluded all of his plotting and dispelled all of his illusions—was as satisfying, and perhaps as mirthful, as his characters’ final scene.
(The Beaux' Stratagem is at Warren's 2nd Story Theatre through Saturday, July 26th. Performances are at 8:00 PM, Wednesday through Saturday.)