BALTIMORE – “She Stoops to Conquer,” the current production of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, was not penned by Shakespeare. The play, written by Oliver Goldsmith and first performed in 1773, nonetheless shows the Bard’s influence, while anticipating the comedies of manners of Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen and others. The current show, directed by Ian Gallanar, wonderfully demonstrates why this play continues to be popular with audiences: it feels fresh, in spite of being over 200 years old.
The plot revolves around a romance between a certain Mr. Charles Marlow and Miss Kate Hardcastle. Kate’s father believes Charles will be a good husband for his daughter, thinking Charles to be both wealthy and noble, and Kate herself is open to the match.
The problem is that Charles is “one of the most bashful and reserved fellows in the world” around women of his upper-class set. When dealing with women of the lower classes, however, he is outgoing and something of a rake.
Kate initially finds Charles’ standoffish behavior off-putting to the point of rudeness, as he lacks the courage even to look her in the eye!
Once Kate learns of his fondness of lower-class women, however, Kate devises a plan uncover the real Charles: she puts on a more common dress and affects an accent and behavior associated with a girl of the common classes.
Kate thus “stoops to conquer;” Charles finds himself smitten, and Kate, in turn, falls in love with him as well. We see here the Shakespearean theme of appearance versus reality, yet the play also looks ahead to a more modern era by questioning class conventions and covertly celebrating the self-determination and agency of women.
Further, is Kate not, after all, the same person, regardless of her social station? Is Charles really the only one who makes assumptions based on social station, whether in 1773 or now?
In spite of having fewer social inhibitions, are the common classes actually freer, and having more fun, than the upper classes?
The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company production is brilliant in its examining of such questions while recalling and working within the Renaissance and social-satire traditions of English drama.
At the same time, it incorporates occasional elements of slapstick comedy, especially in the antics of the servants. This is a quality not always associated with “She Stoops to Conquer,” given its dialogue-driven nature. The play boasts gorgeous dress and a set evocative of the eighteenth century, yet it also feels fresh and relevant. Perhaps it is the times in which we live, or the remarkable skill of the actors, or maybe because of the production’s close proximity to Washington, that the lines which go over best include comments such those made by Kate’s father (played with humorous flair by Ron Heneghan): “I fretted myself about the mistakes of government, like other people; but finding myself every day grow more angry, and the government growing no better, I left it to mend itself.”
Anna DiGiovanni makes a fabulous Kate – strong-willed, yet adaptable to the situation, and easily connecting to the audience with asides and side-long glances. Scenes with Kate’s mother, Mrs. Hardcastle (Lesley Malin), were similarly infectious. Brendan Edward Kennedy as Marlow segues easily between his character’s two roles as tongue-tied boor and ladies’ man. Especially outstanding is Gerrad Alex Taylor as Marlow’s friend, Mr. Hastings; his speedy line delivery is simultaneously eighteenth-century and stand-up comic modern.
The venue itself also contributes mightily to the verisimilitude of the show. The stage with its doors and balcony suggests an Elizabethan playhouse, even though it is actually constructed in the lobby of a former bank, Mercantile Trust & Deposit Company. This unique building, which dates from 1885, was acquired by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in 2014. The building’s Corinthian columns from a bygone age rise high above the stage, in this instance working with the play to evoke the Neo-Classical artistic leanings of the eighteenth century, the same era in which “She Stoops to Conquer” is set.
For theatergoers who bring children, there is a special playroom (a repurposed bank vault!) with a video screen, allowing children to watch the play while trying on the troupe’s retired Shakespearean costumes. Adding to the charm and appeal to little ones, Helena’s words from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” are inscribed on the wall: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.” Adults will notice that part of the vault door has been preserved, with its lock mechanisms on display behind glass.
The humor and social commentary of “She Stoops to Conquer” show us why this play is one of the few comedies in English from the 1700’s still performed widely today. The current production by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, playing through Oct. 21, offers an outstanding opportunity to experience this play’s special qualities in a historic landmark from Baltimore’s past.