Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Restoration hard-to-watch

Quick, what’s your favorite Restoration comedy? I’ll wait while you decide.

If you haven’t yet acquainted yourself with the genreand in my experience, not very many people haveit's not too late to start! Restoration-era English drama has a bit of a bad reputation, where it has any reputation at all; it isn’t Shakespeare and it isn’t Shaw, so why bother with it? This is really a shame, especially for people interested in the theatre. As comedy, it’s very funny, often funnier than Shakespeare. In place of those baffling “wise fools,” with their incomprehensible jokes and long-forgotten popular songs, Restoration comedies give us proto-Wildean wits in fantastic wigs. And Restoration drama offers a fascinating and usually very accessible portrait of a time that is, historically and socially, very interesting indeed. Plus, if you’re at all curious about how the English-language theatre got from Shakespeare to Shaw, you can read through an anthology of Restoration plays and watch conventions changingprologues and epilogues start out earnest, turn ironic, and slowly fall away; prose overtakes poetry, as content trumps form; female actors (and even writers) offer new perspectives and possibilities.

I mention all this because there is a new production of one of the 17th century’s funniest plays, William Wycherley’s The Country Wife, on in New York right now, and I only wish I could recommend it to you. Unfortunately, three minutes into the performance I saw last night, I found myself thinking, “I’d rather be rereading this at home,” and the best thing I can say about the production is that it made me want to dig out my Restoration Drama textbook from college. (Hi, Professor Hoxby!)

I can’t blame the HoNkbarK folks (isn’t it indulgent of me to include those random caps?) for wanting to produce this play, and their hearts seem to be in the right place. The set design is witty, the costumes look great, and the live music is a nice touch (my compliments to whoever decided to arrange “Satisfaction” for harpsichord). But directors, take note: Restoration comedies come with plenty of artifice already built inthe character names in this one include “Pinchwife,” “Fidget” and “Squeamish”and 350 years have put a dangerous amount of distance between play and audience. So piling on the stylistic flourishes seems to me to be exactly the wrong approach in producing a play like this onethe satire ends up buried beneath the ruffles.

In this case, the director seems to have focused more on how fluidly the actors handle their props (fans for the ladies, walking sticks for the men) than on how clearly they tell the story. This is too bad, because a little trust in the script would have gone a long way. The Country Wife is heartless, unsentimental and very provocative. Wycherley builds his entire plot on the presumption that morality is a fantasy, and what passes for innocence is really just ignorance; that fidelity is impossible, and the expectation of virtue is the profoundest kind of foolishness. If you must adhere to puritanical concepts of virtue and honor, the play argues, then it is up to you to deceive yourself into believing that honor exists. Listening to the characters debate these points can be exhilaratingthey are as stunningly amoral as any of Neil LaBute’s or Martin McDonagh’s inventions. The first line of the play (not counting the prologue, which is left out here), spoken by the rake Horner (yes, as in, “…I just met her!”), hits the audience like a bucket of cold water: “A Quack is as fit for a Pimp, as a Midwife for a Bawd; they are still but in their way, both helpers of nature.” Never mind the point he’s making; hearing the word “pimp” from a guy in tights is enough to make you sit up straight. The play is also packed with metatheatrical commentary; When Wycherley isn’t making fun of people who ruin his plays by talking through them, he’s making fun of theatre itself for being no competition for the excitement of real-life London. But here, the jokes miss their target in almost every case, and the constant references to theatre and theatregoers only point up the lameness of this particular interpretation of the play.

The performances are also distractingly uneven; some are quite good, and some are so bad they’re embarrassing. Everyone is doing his or her own idea of an appropriate accent, which gives the impression that the actors never rehearsed together before beginning the run. They also seem to be responsible for applying their own makeup, so that some actors are wearing almost none (nor should they be, in a theatre where the back row isn’t 20 feet from the stage), while others are made up as if they were about to go onstage in a 60,000-seat amphitheater. The effect is very Red, White and Blaine.

I was hoping I'd have better news for you today. But, as I said, I left determined to reacquaint myself with the Restoration stage, even if only on the page, and I encourage you to do the same (the full text of the play is here; a great deal more information than anyone could require is here). I promise, it’s more fun than you think!

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