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BTC's 'Stoops to Conquer' ruled the weekend

By Alex DeSilva
On April 2, 2012

For about as long as there's been aristocracy in Britain, there have been authors and playwrights who've made their name poking fun at it. The British class system, with its tangle of lords, dukes and squires, as well as its web of manners and decorum, has found itself a ripe target for parody from authors like Austen, Wilde and Wodehouse to more modern fare like Keeping up Appearances. The popularity of these works in Britain is understandable enough, but one of the strangest things about this genre is just how popular it's become all over the world. From Pride and Prejudice to The Importance of Being Earnest, non-Britons can't seem to get enough of this uniquely English art form.

With this in mind, the Brandeis Theater Company's decision to put on William Golding's 1773 play She Stoops to Conquer this past weekend makes a lot of sense. After two and a half centuries, Golding's lampooning of Georgian England's aristocracy still holds up. Though the society that Golding satirizes is long gone, the play's underlying targets-cliquishness, fickleness and pretense-are still very much with us today.

She Stoops to Conquer is set in an unnamed part of rural England, far from London and its fashionable upper class. It's here that the wealthy Hardcastle family makes their home, headed by the no-nonsense, old-fashioned Mr. Hardcastle (Mark Corkins), a man who wants nothing more than to sit at home and relive the past, much to the dismay of Mrs. Hardcastle (Laura Jo Trexler, Theater Arts Master's student), a scheming social climber whose life revolves around whatever trends and gossip happen to be popular among the London elite. Also in the house is Mr. Hardcastle's daughter, Kate (Theater Arts Master's student Sarah Elizabeth Bedard), an unpretentious, quick-witted young woman who's recently come of marrying age. Mr. Hardcastle has arranged for her to meet Marlow (Theater Arts Master's student Sam Gillam), son of a wealthy Londoner. Around upper class women like Kate, Marlow is painfully shy, much to her disappointment. But Kate soon gets wind that Marlow is reputed to be a consummate Lothario among London's lower class women. She then hatches a plan to pass herself off as a maid.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Hardcastle has arranged for her son, the wild and boorish Tony Lumpkin (Theater Arts Master's student Jonathan Young), to marry her niece, Constance Neville (Theater Arts Master's student Nicole Dalton), though neither wants anything to do with the other. Constance has been courting Marlow's friend Hastings (Theater Arts Master's student Eddie Shields) behind Mrs. Hardcastle's back, while Tony would be content to spend his days down at the alehouse. Said alehouse is actually where the plot gets rolling. Marlow and Hastings, on their way to Hardcastle's manor, stop by the tavern after realizing that they're lost. Tony, seeing the opportunity for some fun, points them in the direction of the Hardcastle estate, telling them that it's an inn. With Hardcastle trying to entertain his guests, Marlow and Hastings mistaking their hosts for inn staff, and Kate passing herself off as a servant in her attempt to get Marlow to come out of his shell, the accepted manners of the day go out the window, as Tony's prank exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of aristocratic etiquette.

Tony himself is really the character that the rest of the play turns around. Unlike everyone else, he has no patience for the false niceties that come with his social position. If it weren't for his mother's attempts to get him to marry Constance, he'd happily spend all his time at the alehouse, and when denied that, he amuses himself by playing with the rigid social mores of his family, laughing with the audience at just how frivolous his family truly is. He's a pretty demanding role, and Young plays the role well, making for a boisterous and likeable Tony.

Actually, the entire cast performs admirably. Trexler's Mrs. Hardcastle spends most of the play enamored with the latest fashions from London, her dreams of wealth or the nonexistent accomplishments of her layabout son.

Mr. Hardcastle is played well by veteran actor Corkins, who gets entertainingly more and more exasperated as Marlow's visit goes on.

On that note, Gilliam's portrayal of Marlow also deserves special mention. His behavior towards "innkeeper" Hardcastle and "chambermaid" Kate are great bits of upper class buffoonery, and the scenes with his shy persona are rife with physical comedy; his discovery that Hardcastle was not, in fact, an innkeeper sends him into a conniption as his face contorts into a look of pure horror.

Everyone involved in She Stoops to Conquer was firing on all cylinders that night, from Bedard and Dalton to Young and Shields. Everything about the play, from the set design to the acting, was perfect. The BTC breathed new life last weekend into a centuries-old play, and for that, everyone involved should be proud.  

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