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Review: Restoration comedy 'The Beaux' Strategem' defies categories

April 10, 2013|By Philip Brandes
  • Robber-priest Gloss (Time Winters, right) menaces frustrated Mrs. Sullen (Abby Craden) as seducer Archer (Blake Ellis) and cowering servant Scrub (Alan Blumenfeld) prepare to leap to her defense in "The Beaux' Strategem."
Robber-priest Gloss (Time Winters, right) menaces frustrated Mrs. Sullen… (Craig Schwartz / Craig Schwartz…)

How often do you get to see a classic bawdy Restoration comedy by George Farquhar, a long-lost Thornton Wilder meditation on marriage and other human foibles, and a brand-new Ken Ludwig farce — all for the price of a single ticket? Granted, they happen to be the same play, but A Noise Within’s West Coast premiere of “The Beaux’ Strategem” is a great deal nonetheless.

This hybrid creation began its theatrical life in Farquhar’s 1707 sharp-edged satire about two rakish fortune-hunters on a road trip to replenish their squandered incomes by preying on provincial heiresses. After Wilder’s partially completed 1939 adaptation was posthumously discovered among his unpublished manuscripts, his estate enlisted Ludwig (of “Lend Me a Tenor” fame) to finish the project.

In only the second production since the present version’s completion in 2005, each co-author’s influence and historical perspectives are apparent. Overlaid on Farquhar’s Restoration-era lampooning of social hypocrisy, frank depiction of sexuality and empowering roles for women (who were at last permitted to perform them upon the stage), Wilder’s humanism spotlights the heart’s dominion over calculated reason and other deeper truths, while Ludwig’s masterful slapstick antics supply the frequent belly laughs.

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The result is a show that defies easy categorization — amid the period revival look and feel, the action veers from bawdy one-liners and clowning that could have been lifted from a Judd Apatow romp, to poignantly introspective Wilder-esque monologues directly addressed to the audience. It takes performers adept at both classical technique and freewheeling modern comedy to keep the seams from showing, and this first-rate ensemble delivers under Julia Rodriguez-Elliott’s insightful direction.

The staging overflows with memorably hilarious turns: the two lead scoundrels, Aimwell (Freddy Douglas) and Archer (Blake Ellis), floundering in the moral goo of their unraveling selfish plots when they fall in love with their far wiser targets (Malia Wright and especially Abby Craden, whose adroit comic timing nails the smackdown of her character’s loveless marriage to Robertson Dean’s slovenly drunkard); Deborah Strang’s ditzy overprotective mother who dabbles as a rather scary medical practitioner; and the adaptation’s elegant embodiment of hypocrisy in Time Winters’ Gloss, a God-fearing chaplain who moonlights as a highway robber who puts the fear of God into his victims.

Toss in swashbuckling swordplay and superb production values and you’ve got a lot to enjoy in this postmodern Restoration comedy.

“The Beaux’ Strategem,” A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Various dates, check website for schedule: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 26. $40-60 (subject to change). (626) 356-3100 or www.anoisewithin.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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