Review: Modern 'She Stoops to Conquer' surprises, delights

The "Summer of Romance" continues at University Theatre with Oliver Goldsmith's "She Stoops to Conquer," a hallmark of the brief 18th-century revival of the Restoration comedy of manners; despite its age, the play is a fresh, funny and pointed caricature of humanity's foibles.

Directed by graduate student Sara K. Armstrong, this production adapts Goldsmith's script, pulling the play out of its 18-century gestalt and filling it with contemporary references. While the basic text and dialogue remain, Armstrong apparently set her actors free to improvise and then employ a dizzying array of allusions from Handel to Elvis, "Married, With Children" to "Titanic," James Bond to Donald Trump. Relentless allusion could pull the audience out of the play; however, because this production embraces the incongruity of Goldsmith's dialogue transitioning into a Celine Dion song, the wacky concept becomes an expectation rather than a surprise.

Guiding the audience through the action is a merry trio of Cupids played by Katherine McRobbie, Julie Maykowski and Josh Vignery. Acting as a sort of demented chorus, they dart in and out of scenes filling in roles as servants, moving props or popping in to offer commentary on the action, often in the lines of some popular song.

The story is set in and around the Hardcastle country estate. Mr. Hardcastle (Phillip Vocasek) plans to marry off his daughter Kate (Laura Leffler-McCabe) to Marlow (Brandon DeLany). Living with the Hardcastles is their niece, Constance Neville (Averyn Mackey), to whom Mrs. Hardcastle (Samara Naeymi) wishes to marry her son from a previous marriage, Tony Lumpkin (Scott Johnson). Constance, however, is in love with Hastings (Andrew York), who is traveling with his friend Marlow into the country. Through a series of misdirections by Tony, Marlowe and Hastings are led to believe that the Hardcastle home is actually an inn, and the normally shy Marlow is encouraged to behave like a boor with his future father-in-law, whom he has never met. A plot full of pining lovers, mistaken identities, stolen jewels and wildly eccentric characters suggests that Goldsmith probably could have found success writing for television sitcoms.

Vocasek is a wonderfully befuddled Hardcastle, obsessed with Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Korean War history. As the Red Bull-slurping Mrs. Hardcastle, Naeymi's is a wacky, high-energy performance. Leffler-McCabe's cool Kate shifts to shy but sexy when she disguises herself as a maid, and Mackey's perky Constance is charming. As the three young men, York, Delany and Johnson are hilarious and adept at physical comedy.

Delores Ringer's eccentric costume designs complement this off-the-wall production, and Mark Reaney's ingeniously designed three-sided spinning pillars create the set changes.

Goldsmith might be puzzled by some elements of this production, but he would recognize its spirit of fun. The play continues through July 25 in the William Inge Memorial Theatre.

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