Cross-gender performances are not all equal. When women play male characters, we tend to take them seriously. But when men play female roles, we can't help but laugh--it always looks like parody. CityStage Ensemble director David Quinn's version of Richard Sheridan's eighteenth-century comedy The Critic includes a riotous array of cross-gender casting that challenges the old rules a bit even as it proves them right. Men playing women still seems outrageous, but then so is this droll production; and the women in drag here prove to be dashed fine comics.

The play is a parody of life in the theater. And many of the things that we love--and detest--about that life still apply today. The story opens in the home of a famous critic--a pompous know-nothing named Mr. Dangle (played with delightful finesse by Karen Erickson)--whose theories about the theater borrow from Shakespeare (quite pointlessly) and his own silly ideals. Another important critic, Mr. Sneer (Gina Wencel in another sharp performance), arrives and the two discuss the plays of Sir Fretful Plagiary and Mr. Puff, while Mrs. Dangle (played with dainty restraint by Andrew Garrettson) asserts the eighteenth-century feminine perspective on the theater and morality. In her view, theater criticism is an unmanly profession and if her husband were any kind of real man, he would be a military hero instead.

Sir Fretful Plagiary arrives to fume and pant and force harsh sniggers between his teeth in a ludicrous feigning of indifference to criticism. Terry Burnsed's comic performance as Sir Fretful may be broad, but it's also wonderfully inventive. Through Fretful, Sheridan skewers hack playwrights and the whole invention of celebrity. Plagiary (as his name none-too-subtly implies) steals from other writers, and as Sneer lets him know, he doesn't even have the good sense to steal wisely, culling the dregs of other writers' worst ideas for recycling into his own plays.

When the utterly amoral Mr. Puff arrives, the newspaperman-turned-playwright explains the art of puffery. A virtual prototype for modern-day public relations executives, he has mastered the art of journalistic puffery (including writing reviews before the performance) but has decided it's no longer enough for him. So he invites Sneer and Dangle to see a dress rehearsal of his new play. He has given the actors the right to cut out what is irrelevant or dull and a greatly shortened version of the play is what we all see in the second act.

Puff interrupts the action continually, commenting on what the actors left out, giving direction they all ignore. Diana Ward's performance as Mr. Puff never falters; it's a cunning combination of cynicism and self-deception. The play-within-the-play is, of course, an overblown, absurd "puff-piece" about the Spanish Armada. An English damsel loves a Spanish captain but chooses duty over love. The Spaniard is killed and the Spanish Armada routed.

Sheridan parodies the transparent moralisms and fatuous nationalism of his day, along with the era's gross sentimentality. And director Quinn updates the parody with hilarious in-jokes about theater in Denver--and, especially, about his own company. His is an affectionate, beautifully timed production. The cultural particulars may have changed since Sheridan's day, but people remain the same. And writers, critics and actors even more so.


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