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GEORGIAN ON MY MIND

The hit movie The Madness of King George has stimulated popular interest in eighteenth-century England, which had a rich theatrical tradition of its own--witness Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer. The Industrial Arts production of this Georgian comedy, though a bit thick at first, soon opens a bright window on...
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The hit movie The Madness of King George has stimulated popular interest in eighteenth-century England, which had a rich theatrical tradition of its own--witness Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer. The Industrial Arts production of this Georgian comedy, though a bit thick at first, soon opens a bright window on the era--and the stuff that amused the upper classes of the period is parodistic, clever and still funny today.

Mr. Hardcastle has arranged for his highly intelligent daughter, Kate, to meet a prospective husband--the son of an old friend. Young Marlow, however, has one grave problem: reticence around young ladies. He's fine with barmaids, just not potential upper-crust brides. Still, dutiful son that he is, he has agreed to meet the young lady to please his father. But on the road, Kate's mischievous stepbrother, Tony, misleads Young Marlow and his friend Hastings, directing them to an "inn" (really Mr. Hardcastle's house) and warning the two young men that the innkeeper is strangely informal with his betters. So when Marlow and Hastings arrive at the house, they treat Hardcastle like an inferior, ticking off their host until he decides to toss them out in the cold. Before he can, though, young Kate dresses as a barmaid and Marlow falls for her.

Meanwhile, Hardcastle's second wife is planning to marry off her underage niece to her ne'er-do-well son, despite the fact that the kids loathe each other. Niece Constance and son Tony call a truce and conspire to overthrow the old lady's plans: Tony will steal Constance's jewels (her dowry) so she can run off with Hastings.

There are innumerable complications, sudden revelations and cunning tricks throughout the story. But all the chaos produced by misunderstandings and outright deceptions actually reflects Goldsmith's very real comprehension of his age--and others. Because this is a comedy, nothing very bad happens to anyone, but the interfering mother, the immature son, the dignified father and the virtuous young woman who is too bright for the flawed young hero all seem familiar enough in our own society. The differences lie chiefly in changes in manners and mores through the centuries; human nature remains a constant.

Robynne Parris gives Kate all the intelligence, grace and classy wit the role demands. Although she has a presence that sticks with you after you leave the theater, her sparks don't diminish the shine of other performances--she stands out in a crowd, but she doesn't upstage other actors. Susan M. Ross as Constance charms and pleases, too. But of all the women, the most wonderful is Carla Kaiser as Mrs. Hardcastle. Generous of figure and mobile of feature, Kaiser has a tremendous comic talent that anchors the other actors in the refined buffoonery of this story and provokes the most laughter from the audience. She has a knack for the big gesture--the highly arched brow, the visible fit of anger, the coy pursed lips--and she uses them all with crack precision.

The men are good, too, though none succeed in captivating us as the ladies do, with the single exception of that rogue Tony. Timothy Tait's Tony is all energy--a bratty trickster with an edge of adolescent nastiness that makes his scenes with Constance extremely funny. Marc Robins also gives us a satisfying Marlow: aggressive and arrogant one moment, a greedy lover the next.

The good-looking set and costumes augment Joey Wishnia's spritely direction. He keeps the large cast bustling and bumbling, though some of the bumbling by the servants is self-conscious, goofy and a trifle embarrassing to see--it's like watching the Renaissance Festival maids and men try to recreate the appropriate atmosphere. Wishnia also has cut the play to suit a modern audience, interjecting contemporary political gags here and there so that we get a taste of Goldsmith's eighteenth-century intentions.

Not every joke leaps the culture gap between twentieth-century America and Georgian England. And yet, there is a continuity here that surprises and delights. It may take a few minutes for the audience to adjust to the lavish language and the stiff deportment of the characters, but their absurdities are just as silly to us as they would have been in Goldsmith's day, and we can still locate our own pretensions in their more polished ones.

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