The Beaux Strategem
Directed by Michael Kahn
Shakespeare Theatre Company — Washington, DC
Review by Grace Cavalieri
This is one of the best nights you'll spend in theater. " The Beaux' Stratagem" was written by George Farquhar in 1707, adapted by Thornton Wilder in 1938, and picked up by Ken Ludwig in 2004, finished in 2005. The story is of two penniless English scoundrels who visit the English countryside. Their stratagem is to find and marry a wealthy lady and share the dowry. The handsome rakes are Jack Archer and Tom Aimwell, but they are up against others who are planning a stratagem of their own-- to enter the Lady Bountiful household and plunder the goods. Jack and Tom have a thrilling victory against the thugs and win two beautiful women with money between them to spare. There we have a plot that is not altogether different from other plays between the restoration and the 18th century: the bored ladies of the house, disenchanted with too much leisure, the love-hungry characters, broad comedy, lewd behavior, the sword that wins the day. However threaded through this 18th century drama are moral contradictions from a society that saw its theater as the center of vice. The plays of this period gave much worry to the Puritanical and theater was later officially censored. The play gives reason for moralists to pay attention. Society's institutions are assailed...marriage for one, medicine and science, for another, all lambasted by wit. Much has changed since the 1700's but not everything. Hypocrisy thrives. We have mixed attitudes today about marriage even with Freud and Dr. Phil flailing in the interim. We are still railing against the constraints of marriage, the raised eyebrow of divorce. Social consciousness is evident in "The Beaux' Stratagem" via soliloquy and hilarity. The "stratagem" can be seen today as a disguise where we believe one way and act another; or the way we choose to win life by manipulation (see today's popular book The 48 Laws of Power). What does change, however, is how we treat issues on the stage and how the spectacle presents before our eyes.
This play is, as poet Stephen Dunn says "A kiss on the mind."
We can see Thornton Wilder's touch in this- wholesome old man of the theater. There is very little here of true evil - no one to hate - and much to adore (the robber is part time clergyman) Even Wilder's sense of prototype is another indentation on the rewritten Farquhar. Not enough good can be said about Michael Kahn's direction and the production he oversees. If there is genetic coding for genius, it shows up in Kahn's plays. The intention of the play is made into clear resolution by its set. The stage design is the way the outside world sets up the inner actions. Staging and set are a way of understanding the play. It is a comfort when this is part of the total transformations, with nothing awry.
If I insist that friends see this play it will be because of the sword play involving 3 women, Dorinda, Lady Bountiful, and Mrs. Sullen jumping into battle with the dashing suitors and roguish robbers. Caricatures all. But with the greatest of style, sword choreography done as well as you'll ever see.
George Farquhar died penniless, disappointed and swept by sadness. If ever we know how the heart of an artist is kept in tact, we watch something still living and sparkling with spirit, in spite of monstrous beginnings. Here we are on a fall night in Washington, laughing and loving a piece of theater, energized by its impossible relationships and beauty. And all came from a writer poisoned at the root by society. Who the artist is will always be manifested later, maybe made better by adaptation - but of those who lived and worked in ignominy and poverty, to bring us pleasure centuries years later, well I call that God.
What a great cast of actors. Everytime Nancy Robinette and Floyd King walked on stage I could almost hear the audience purr thank you.
Grace Cavalieri is a playwright and a poet. Her new play, "Quilting the Sun," premieres at Centre Stage, South Carolina in 2007. She produces "The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress" for public radio.