The Busy Body
at Bailiwick Arts Center
The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret
Stage Left Theatre
By Carol Burbank
Although Susanna Centlivre was one of the most successful English playwrights of the 18th century, it's a surprise to see two revivals of her work this month in Chicago. Theater scholars know of Centlivre's witty, bantering love intrigues, set amid the wealthy daughters and sons of the aristocracy, but it's rare to see them on contemporary stages outside university settings.
Centlivre's formulaic work presents all sorts of challenges for modern audiences. The stock characters come from a time when marriages were arranged and women wore corsets that out-wondered the Wonder Bra. In Centlivre's plots, fathers and guardians invariably wish to trick young women out of their inheritances or force them into convents or marriages with inappropriate suitors. Servants seem to have no other task but arranging secret meetings for their mistresses with young men whose passions are usually stronger than their prospects.
The resulting erotic mayhem is predictable and goofy, classic Restoration comedy though technically Centlivre followed that period. Scenes revolve around farcical mischance, as fathers and cuckolded lovers come within inches of discovering what's going on but never quite figure things out until too late. The characters' deepest secrets are made known through soliloquies accompanied by much winking and mugging. And inevitably there's a happy ending, complete with song and dance. Like the late-20th-century sitcom, Restor-ation comedies were a popular-entertainment genre, more creative in language and style than in their stories.
But Centlivre was a master of her craft. The two plays currently on view in Chicago--The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret and The Busy Body--both demonstrate her intelligent, ironic sensibility and strong sense of theatrical poetry. And Centlivre's work transcends the usual Restoration romp partly because her female characters are invariably smart and charming, not empty-headed and flighty, a fact that directors do well to recognize. If there is indeed a test of time somewhere, her work deserves to pass. The question is, how can her plays be brought back and enjoyed as more than highly silly museum pieces?
Out-of-the-Box Theatre chose to set The Busy Body, about two pairs of lovers whose schemes for marriage are continually foiled by a meddling busybody, in the United States in the 1920s. Garishly decorating the new Bailiwick studio space--a walled-off corner of the building--director F. Martin Glynn has replaced the uplifted bodices and coy fan languages of fops and their conquests with speakeasies, flappers, jazz, and the jaunty excesses of the New Woman and her beaus.
A bold but misguided idea, this has produced all kinds of anachronisms and confusions. Some are minor but irreconcilable, such as a woman's fearful anticipation of an arranged marriage with a Spanish husband, a humorous threat that reflects the ethnic stereotypes of Catholic moralism and Spanish nationalism of Centlivre's time. But the greatest problem is the apparent emasculation of Centlivre's dandies, played enthusiastically by Abu Ansari and Ted Mortellaro. Taken out of their historical context, which justifies Marplot's and Airy's foolish affectations as satire of a certain preening fancy-dressed class, these young men seem gay in the modern sense of the word, fluttering, fawning, whinnying caricatures oddly pursuing women rather than each other.
Perhaps some of this is grounded in the script: the foolish Marplot is the titular misguided go-between, who very nearly destroys his friends' secret wedding plans and has no heterosexual interest; Glynn may well be playing with sexual stereotypes in his interpretation. But for Airy to be so queenish and coy seems misguided in a 20th-century setting. Handsome as his preening is, it makes us think he'd be better matched with his unassuming friend Charles (Steven Decker) than the manipulative female wit he ends up marrying.
The only characters who manage to survive the transposition over two centuries are the servant girl Patch, played with vigor by Patricia Austin, and Airy's love interest Miranda, played with intelligence and clarity by Siobhan Sullivan: these actors convey a timeless sense of adventure that carries their characters through the confusion. But in general this production's bright-eyed flapper energy and ukulele strumming collide with the 18th-century sensibilities that make the play a farce.
It's easier to suspend disbelief during Stage Left's delightfully cartoonish production of The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret. Faced with an almost identical plot, though set in Portugal, director Mary Booker has chosen to play up its Restoration sensibilities. Mugging unrepentently, the cast make a virtue of excess. We're conquered by sheer silliness, as the inevitable becomes revelation.
The unity of design, costume, and performance style is crucial to re-creating this theatrical world, where modern expectations of emotional resonance are beside the point. Robert G. Smith's gilded walls, fitted with the requisite farcical doors, set the tone. This play is a professional romp--not to be taken seriously but not to be dismissed either. Against Smith's caricature of a period set the actors are larger than life in their bright costumes, preposterous wigs, upswept bodices, and flimsy swords. Whether the costumes are historically accurate is irrelevant--they set the tone for a world of high foolishness, a safely distant past where there was a time and place for idiots of all kinds.
The performers have developed physical shticks for their characters; the men are particularly funny. Martin Aistrope gives the ineffectual Grandee Don Lopez a fierce sneer of superiority that signals his inevitable fall. Patrick Blashill plays Don Felix, one of the two young lovers, as if his jealousy and desire caused mental impairment, combining halting speech with macho posturing to show the character's hot-blooded helplessness. As Colonel Britton, Rich Richards is all velvet lust, wooing with the physical subtlety of a bear in heat while seizing the spotlight of courtship to spout the self-aggrandizing poetry of a self-educated romantic. Jack Tippett has the most difficult role: Gibby, the wild Scots footman, must speak in a strategically incomprehensible brogue while flinging himself across the stage in frustrated attempts to please his master and finally get a decent meal.
In Stage Left's clear production, Booker recognizes something that Glynn does not: Centlivre's plays are more about the women who manipulate the men around them than they are about the men who are manipulated. In a world of arranged marriages and greedy parents, women must use their wits and fend for themselves. Marguerite Hammersley and Jennifer Bradley make an excellent pair of conspirators: they keep the secret of the title between them as a matter of feminine honor. They must shape their own futures, managing their marriages with an eye to their sexual and economic satisfaction, choosing as best they can from the buffoons around them.
In the end, when secret marriages are announced and the inevitable song and dance begin, it is their victory in the game that makes the romp so satisfying. That young lovers can be happy in a society run by fools is the point of Restoration comedy--perhaps of most comedy. Booker's ensemble creates a cartoonish but delightful world well worth reviving.
These two forays into the past make one thing clear: be true to the text. Neither production has a big budget, and both aspire to show off Centlivre's playful farces. But Booker takes her cues from the story, the poetry, and the period, trusting the coherence of Centlivre's original impulse. Glynn imposes a clever but misguided framework that muddles the virtues and wickedness of the idiots Centlivre invites us to mock and love.
In Stage Left's clear production, Booker recognizes something that Glynn does not: Centlivre's plays are more about the women who manipulate the men around them than they are about the men who are manipulated. In a world of arranged marriages and greedy parents, women
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Busy Body theater still by Curtis G. Staiger; The Wonder" A Woman Keeps a Secret theater still by David Konzcal.