The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines knavery as a “roguish or mischievous act.” Whether discussing the antics of frat brethren on The Row or the characters in an Errol Flynn movie, this is a fun word to throw around.
But A Noise Within’s new production of George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem, truly seems to embody this word.
Set in a small town in rural England in the early 18th century, the story revolves around two young men seeking to hoodwink a wealthy woman into marriage and split her fortune. Between the feisty female characters and the obsession with marrying into wealth, consider this a sort of topsy-turvy take on Pride and Prejudice, but with a lot more laughs.
And though it might take audience members a moment to adjust to the various English accents of the actors, the speed with which they deliver their lines and the old-school language they use, one needn’t be an English scholar to enjoy the madness that unfurls.
Upon entering the theater, the beauty of the set immediately serves as a sign of good things to come. The thrust stage holds huge arrangements of rich red and brown wood, creating the inside of a standard English countryside pub and inn. The set is so carefully crafted, however, that the pub almost looks too nice -— as though maybe if you stepped inside yourself, if wouldn’t smell quite as bad as it should. The next set arrangement takes viewers inside the home of Lady Bountiful, a loony old widow who concocts “alternative remedies” and aims to cure townspeople of their various ailments. Bountiful’s home is filled with extravagant furniture, much of it upholstered in velvet or boasting clawed wooden feet — think lavish Versailles. Fans of Antiques Roadshow will surely drool over this production.
The splendor of the set is mirrored in the amazing costumes worn by the actors. When Aimwell, the con artist/suitor, first arrives in town desperate to prove his high status, he wears a stunning gray — silk suit with intricate embroidery and a gaudy Three Musketeers-style hat. The way this fabric catches the stage lights might inspire gasps from the audience.
The zany black and white ball gowns worn by Lady Bountiful are just as impressive, creating a look akin to the most glamorous of Tim Burton characters. The gowns worn by Mrs. Sullen and Dorinda are gorgeous as well, adding a splendid color pop to the wooden set with their rich jewel tones.
But looking beyond appearances, Farquhar’s story is treated to a wonderful adaptation by Thornton Wilder, renowned for his outstanding plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, and Ken Ludwig. Wilder and Ludgwig’s interpretation of Beaux’ maintains the humor of Farquhar’s original plot but updates the language with the sharpness that earned Wilder his two Pulitzer Prizes for drama.
Lines that contain shrewd insight into the human condition are dead giveaways of Wilder’s hand, along with the biting humor evident in lines such as, “The man is a walking Babylon” or “His father was hanged for miscounting spoons.”
The uniquely brilliant character traits, however, are all thanks to Farquhar. The character of Sullen, for example, could be described simply as such: unhappily married, loves to get drunk and throws chairs through windows.
These magnificent characters are paid their due respect by a cast of immensely talented actors. Blake Ellis plays Francis Archer, the devious but charming knave eagerly after some bride’s fortune. Ellis makes several self-aware monologues directly to the audience and absolutely nails the comedic edge necessary for lines such as, “If this were a play, we’d be nearing the climax.” Ellis’ zeal in all of Archer’s endeavors makes him incredibly fun to watch. Keep an eye out for this guy, because he is a rising star.
Another standout performance comes from Deborah Strang, who plays Lady Bountiful and can also be seen in brilliant form in another show in the repertory, The Grapes of Wrath. Clearly, Strang has quite the dramatic range, and her fearless commitment to the insanity of Lady Bountiful is commendable.
The show is stolen by Time Winters in his brief role as Foigard, the obnoxious French minister who is manipulated by the beaux. Winters’ French accent is downright outrageous — it’s hard to tell if it’s the best French accent ever or the very worst. But either way, expect to cry tears of laughter because of it.
As cliche as it might sound, this production has something for everyone. Love a good choreographed fight sequence? Check. Enjoy a nice bromance? Boom. Always wanted to see two women take up arms? Look no further. Nothing about The Beaux’ Stratagem feels old, and the fresh revival promises to win many new fans.