Difficult as it may be for us to imagine, not everybody in the UK of the 1770s was consumed by concern over armed conflict against the New World colonies. Oliver Goldsmith, an Irish composer of prose and poetry, created a now-classic bit of theater entitled “She Stoops to Conquer” during that decade. The script was daring — in its parody of the cloying sentiment which was the dominant style; in its poke-the-bear satire of city versus country; man versus woman; rich versus poor; and clever versus dim.
Playwright Goldsmith might have based the plot upon a real-life comedy of error that had happened to him some 40 years before – so legend has – in which he lost his way while making a difficult journey home. Stopping to get his bearings, he came across a local man and rudely demanded that he direct him to the nearest inn. The man tricked Goldsmith by sending him instead to a private house, where Goldsmith behaved as a demanding, obstreperous customer to the shocked bewilderment of his host. Adding injury to insult, the homeowner-mistaken-for-innkeeper also turned out to be a friend of Goldsmith’s father. Ooopsie!
Fact or fiction, the story formed the basis of a wonderfully constructed farce. All it lacked was a love story angle, and the playwright provided two of them: In one, the traveler Young Marlow is given the mission of meeting Kate Hardcastle, potentially to close the deal on a marriage arranged between their fathers. Kate and Marlow do meet, and his manner and moves fail him completely: a deferential cold fish, he is too bashful even to look at her. A different Marlow emerges, however, when he encounters a young serving girl of the “inn”. Just as the house is no inn, the woman is no serving girl. Yep, it’s Kate, and the suddenly smooth Marlow uses every line in the book attempting to seduce her. Kate is so bemused by the dichotomy that she decides not to disabuse Marlow of his mistake.
Meanwhile in a parallel plotline, Young Marlow’s traveling companion George Hastings is in love with another young lady of the house, Constance Neville. Naturally, there’s a challenge there too: Constance is already promised to her cousin (!), Tony Lumpkin; and Tony is, in fact, the very trickster who directed Marlow and Hastings to the house in the beginning.
A few smaller twists, involving jewels, an incriminating letter, and some strategic eavesdropping help propel this tall tale. It’s a yarn to delight any number of Shavian scholars who’ll point to it and grin: “This is where he got it!”.
In its current incarnation at Baltimore’s Fells Point Corner Theatre, “Stoops” is a no-holds-barred rollicking romp. The production is co-directed by Lance Bankerd and Barbara Madison Hauck; the latter making her directorial debut. The pacing and energy their cast delivers remind one of the old axiom FUNNIER, FASTER, MORE — and it suits the material perfectly.
Elizabeth Norman, well known to Baltimore audiences as a standup and sketch comic, makes Kate Hardcastle the funniest character we’ve seen on stage in months; an island of deadpan in a sea of chaos. As her wannabe suitor Young Marlow, Ian Charles pivots with agility from bumbling nincompoop to suave ladies’ man to the world’s worst customer. The pair of them work together well: as Norman reaches ever deeper for low-key shade Charles is driven to ever higher levels of hysteria.
The other love connection features Hannah Fogler as Constance Neville and Albert Lou Collins as George Hastings. Fogler is amazing – over the top – shrill and mugging and 100% committed to her character’s life-or-death struggle to escape an impossible match and to gain her birthright. Constance’s con man cousin Tony Lumpkin is delivered irrepressibly by Corey Hennessey.
Aside from an alehouse opening scene where Marlow and Hastings receive Lumpkin’s mischievous misdirection, the entire play takes place in the Hardcastle home. A multi-level set by designer David Shoemaker provides many wonderful ins and outs for the action, and three cheers for his alehouse bar which bifurcates to become corner pieces in the house. Rache Austin’s costumes are a fanciful blend of plaid sports jackets on the servants, bustles on the young men, and bright colors. Between these two production elements it doesn’t appear that a firmly fixed idea of a period is in place here, and that’s perfectly fine. The parlor of the Hardcastle house includes a console radio, suggesting the first half of the 20th century perhaps, while sounds of visitors coming and going are of horses’ hooves. The latter, and the rest of this production’s sound design by Heiko Spieker add exactly the right ornament to a richly well-rounded show.
Running Time: approximately 145 minutes with one intermission.
“She Stoops to Conquer” runs through December 15 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann Street in Baltimore. Click here for tickets and information.