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Long Live the Restoration

Niagara University stoops to conquer, the Irish Classical relapses

Buffalo is fortunate that our close proximity to Southern Ontario ensures first-rate productions of classic plays at the Stratford and Shaw festivals. Without leaving Western New York, however, the best bet for seeing the classics on a regular basis is college and university programs. Luckily, these are abundant and often of very high quality.

When he first arrived at Studio Arena Theatre back in the 1990s, English-born artistic director Gavin Cameron-Webb expressed a dream that Buffalo could become a Mecca for Restoration comedy, but like so much else, it never happened.

Indeed, aside from the occasion dip into the Restoration at the Kavinoky, and slightly more regular forays at the Irish Classical Theatre Company, college theater departments are the last refuge for these plays with their large casts, expensive costume and wig demands, and sprawling plots.

Assuming that readers have all the help they need in navigating the holiday fare that proliferates at this time of year, let us indulge ourselves for a moment with a visit to the English Restoration.

While some might argue that a play from 1773 is a bit late to be called a proper “Restoration” comedy, Niagara University is opening Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer this week, under the direction of Doug Zschiegner.

To remind you, the term “Restoration” refers to the restoration of the English monarchy after the theatrically moribund years of the puritan commonwealth, beginning in 1649. Oliver Cromwell had swept into power, King Charles I was beheaded, and, worst of all, the theaters were closed. The aristocracy went into exile on the Continent, where they saw plays far different from the Elizabethan and Jacobean fare to which they were accustomed. By this time, naughty Moliere had happened, and the French were far more fun than the English had ever dreamed of being. When King Charles II returned to England in 1660, the good times returned with him, for the Merrie Monarch was a hedonist at heart. He loved a good time, he fathered no children by his wife but acknowledged a dozen children by others, and, most important of all, he loved the theater.

The theater of the Restoration bore little resemblance to the theater that England had known before. England saw its first proscenium stages and its first female actors. The plays did not have a broad appeal but pandered the tastes of a small, well educated, and over-privileged upper class. Their concerns did not involve the burdens of leadership and fate or the eternal verities, but gossip, adultery, jealousy, petty rivalry, and greed. And they were fantastically entertaining!

She Stoops to Conquer fits the bill in most every regard, except that there is a theme of a rural character (the marvelous Toby Lumpkin) getting the best of the more urbane and sophisticated characters. (The opposite would be far more likely at the height of the Restoration.) This has long made the play popular with American audiences, who have enjoyed this device in entertainments as diverse as The Beverly Hillbillies, Our American Cousin, and the vice-presidential bid of Sarah Palin. In addition, She Stoops was clearly written at a time when sentimental comedy was coming into fashion, and we can conclude from She Stoops that the trend made Goldsmith a little queasy. In She Stoops to Conquer, Goldsmith skewers the sentimental—no swooning ingénues here.

In this play, wealthy Mr. Hardcastle is hoping to marry his daughter, Kate, to Charles Marlow, the son of a wealthy aristocrat. Unfortunately, while Marlow demonstrates all the hedonistic gusto of King Charles II himself when he is alone with a working class woman, in the presence of upper-class women he becomes awkward and tongue-tied. Realizing the predicament, clever Kate “stoops to conquer,” pretending to be a servant in her own home. Several subplots later, and everything ends happily.

With so many young characters in the mix, She Stoops to Conquer is a natural for a university theater production. Niagara University will perform the play (without a Santa Claus in sight) at NU Theatre at the Church, 415 Plain Street, Lewiston (286-8685), through December 13.

And for a second dose of Restoration high jinks, the Irish Classical Theatre Company (which performed She Stoops to Conquer in 2005) will present John Vanbrugh’s less-familiar but more purely Restoration comedy, The Relapse, beginning in January. First produced in 1696, The Relapse is a comedy of seduction and adultery. Avoiding the costume issue, under the direction of Derek Campbell, ICTC has reset the play in “the Carnaby Street era,” which Americans will quaintly recall as “the 1960s,” a time when uptight England once again startled itself by swinging much as a pendulum does. For information call 853-ICTC.