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Restoring the Restoration



nglish theater had a rough time of it under the Puritans. In 1642, during the civil war, the theaters were closed entirely. And they never really came back to vigorous life until 1662 and the restoration of the monarchy. By then, everything had changed. The vigorous, public Elizabethan stage gave way to the court comedy of manners.

Now, New Orleans has always had monarchical leanings. After all, the culminating ritual of our annual decline into collective hysteria is marked by a meeting of the courts. So it has always struck me as odd that nobody ever does Restoration comedy here.

From the classical canon, we get Shakespeare. Recently, Romeos have been particularly abundant. Occasionally, some Greek heroine washes up as a Creole necromancer on an antebellum bayou. Or, in a nod to our Gallic heritage, we can occasionally, very occasionally, see some Moliere or Feydeau. But the clever, elegant nonsensical world of fops and fans, of malaprops and misalliances? Never. Strange, no?

Why is it that 17th and 18th century garb and manners are favorites with carnival masquers while, on local stages, they are not merely an endangered species, but are extinct as the Dodo?

It's been so long since I have seen some of the Restoration classics -- never mind the lesser-known masterpieces -- that I can barely remember what they're about. I only remember how much fun they were. And I long to see them again.

And so it was I read with mixed emotions that the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts was presenting She Stoops to Conquer. The mix was composed of an avid desire to see the show and a dread at what sort of results even the most well-intended efforts of a group of American high schoolers would yield.

Desire won out. And am I glad! I don't know how director Janet Shea did it, but she somehow conjured up a thoroughly enjoyable production; tasteful, poised and often hilarious. The actors were 11th and 12th graders. Teenagers. Their "default" posture is, no doubt, a slouch; their default apparel, running shoes and jeans; their default conversation, "like, whatever." Yet, they strode through the 18th century English countryside as though to the manor, and to the manner, born.

Oliver Goldsmith's plot is delightful little machine infernale based on a quirk in one of the main characters: a young gentleman named Marlowe (Anthony Jones) is excruciatingly shy with ladies of his own social standing, but a bit of a rake with the lassies of the lower orders. His father (Cliff Connor) has sent him on to be a suitor for the hand of Miss Hardcastle (Taylor Richardson), who is the daughter of his old friends, Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle (Bryan Pugh and Sophie Amoss). The Hardcastles' ne'er-do-well son, Tony (Isreal Scott) meets Marlowe at a tavern and, as a joke, sends him on to the Hardcastles -- on the mistaken impression their home is an inn.

This, of course, offers many comic opportunities -- but the twist is that Marlowe mistakes the young Miss Hardcastle for a maid. This frees him to woo her. And she goes along with the mistake. She stoops (to a lower social class) in order to conquer her diffident beau.

There is a romantic subplot concerning the best friends of the central couple: Hastings (Graham Burk) and Miss Neville (Ciera Payton). And there are various little droll meanderings in and around these central notions.

"So then all's out, and I have been damnably imposed on. Oh, confound my stupid head, I shall be laughed at over the whole town. What a swaggering puppy must he take me for. There again, may I be hanged, my dear, but I mistook you for a barmaid." That's the sort of language Marlowe laments in when he realizes he's been duped. Wonderful language, but quite a stretch for a 21st century teen. Nonetheless, these young actors were clear and precise and natural, in speech, attitude and movement. They not only understood what they were saying, but were able to play the comic subtext. They all deserve a deep and sincere tip of the hat. Bryan Pugh and Sophie Amoss deserve an extra nod for transforming themselves into a middle-age couple, on top of everything else.

Adding to the polish of the presentation were Julie Winn's stunning costumes and David Raphael's attractive, functional set.

I'm tempted to say to all the directors and theater companies out there: "Hey, if these kids can do it, what's your excuse?" But, on second thought, these kids might not be so easy to match.

Graham Burk, Ciera Payton and Isreal Scott led a cast of NOCCA students who bridged an impressive generation gap in their presentation of She Stoops to Conquer.
  • Graham Burk, Ciera Payton and Isreal Scott led a cast of NOCCA students who bridged an impressive generation gap in their presentation of She Stoops to Conquer.

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