In 1773, She Stoops to Conquer, a comedy in five acts by Anglo-Irish playwright and novelist Oliver Goldsmith, debuted in London.
The play has amused audiences for over two centuries since then. When I heard that the play was coming to Baltimore, I hurried to the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company downtown to find out about the revival of this uproariously funny classical piece.
Initially the play was subtitled The Mistakes of a Night. The events within the farce take place in just one night, entangled together by vivid characters. Mr. Hardcastle arranges for his daughter Kate to meet and marry a gentleman, Charles Marlow, the son of his friend. Mrs. Hardcastle plans to have her son Tony Lumpkin woo Constance Neville, her ward, who is falling in love with George Hastings, Marlow’s friend.
On a night during Marlow and Hastings’ first visit to Hardcastle’s mansion, Tony humorously dupes them into believing that they are staying at an inn instead of the real location that they’re going to.
Kate, who falls for Marlow at first sight, pretends to be a housemaid in an attempt to win the heart of the handsome Marlow, who finds women of lower class less intimidating and more attractive.
Kate, played by Anna DiGiovanni, is the main character of the play and managed to wittily disguise herself as someone else to bravely woo her love while retaining a guise of honesty and innocence. Brendan Edward Kennedy did an excellent job and handsomely portrayed Marlow’s tension with Kate. Elana Michelle, as the heroine of the subplot and Kate’s relative, played Constance and was able to skillfully enchant both the audience and her lover, Tony Lumpkin.
Tony, played by Elliott Kashner, was the highlight of the stage for the night: His clumsiness coexisted with his wit and annoyance. In the role of Mrs. Hardcastle, Lesley Malin was simultaneously bustling and ridiculous while retaining an air of elegance, alongside the decorously angry Ron Heneghan as Mr. Hardcastle.
I enjoyed the play because of the way it subverted traditional expectations. Goldsmith explored the respectability of each character within a comedic setting, highlighting the juxtaposition between the upper and lower classes.
One thing that was particularly noticeable was the fact that characters only fell for each other when the other character was either deceiving them or lying to them. Goldsmith managed to create a clear sense of irony in having each character appear to be virtuous on the outside while also having individual character flaws. This added a whole other level of complexity to the story.
In the final scene of the play, Goldsmith soothed the audience by unraveling each character’s unspeakable secrets and conveying the message that honesty is rewarded with a happy ending.
Walking into the theater, the audience was greeted with music while awaiting the start of the play, and music proved to be a critical feature of the play throughout.
The musical prelude and interlude highlighted the lighthearted tone of the play and weaved the different plot lines together without the discontinuous change of scene, making the play even more amusing and accessible to the audience.
As a theater lover, I’ve been to the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company several times, and after every play that I see there, I always find myself drawn back to it. Each production also clearly puts a lot of effort into the details of the play.
This time with She Stoops to Conquer, a detail that was particularly well executed was the actors’ accents. Instead of adopting classic English accents, each character possessed their own accent that symbolized different social classes, educational backgrounds and even their individual personalities.
DiGiovanni, for example, swiftly switched to a suburban accent when taking on the role of the housemaid, to signify the lower social class she was attempting to blend into.
Having not read the play before, I didn’t feel like there were any barriers in place as a result of my lack of background knowledge — the actors did a terrific job of reviving an absolutely fantastic story.
The setting of this production was also fantastic — the two historical and splendid columns of the theater beautifully complemented the magnificent decoration of the Hardcastle mansion. The luxurious pattern of the carpet, the antiquated styles of the furniture and a plethora of humorous details all added to the ambience of the play.
It’s incredible to see a play that has been making audiences laugh for over two centuries still resonating with people today. Goldsmith’s comedy was new for its time and still comes across as fresh and innovative.
The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is undoubtedly one of my favorite theaters in Baltimore, and I hope more people can appreciate this hidden gem as well.