She Stoops to Conquer -11/17/1998
By Oliver Goldsmith. Cast: J.W. Morrisette, Marc A. Lessman, Fabio Serafini, Christian Stanley Anderson, Keith “Bucket” Bolden, Tom Reed, Shanola Gralyn Harrison, Krista Motley, Betsy Capes, Lauren Gasparo, Cara Mantella, Megan Alban, Desiree Maumus,
University of Illinois Department of Theater
Through November 22. Studio Theater, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Urbana. Box office: 333-6280.
As nearly as I can figure, Oliver Goldsmith wrote only two plays. What’s amazing is that one of them -- “She Stoops to Conquer” -- is still alive and kicking, when so much of 18th century drama is long
At Krannert Center’s Studio Theater, the emphasis is definitely on kicking, as in Texas-two-step, boot-stomp style.
In Goldsmith’s version, this charming comedy contrasted the pretensions of rich city swells with the quirks of more common country folk. The play featured a smart, spunky heroine, not above “stooping” [pretending to be a servant girl] if it will get her what she wants; a muddled hero who can’t get his mouth to work when he talks to women of quality; and a conniving bumpkin named Lumpkin who really mixes things up.
Originally, the action was set in the provinces outside fashionable London, and there was hay to be made satirizing both town and country, as well as the fashions and mores of the day.
Director Tom Mitchell, at the helm of “She Stoops to Conquer” for the University of Illinois Department of Theater, has chosen to reframe and
readjust the action to suit 1980’s Texas.
This means we see big hair and country-and-western dancing, bandanas and cowboy hats, and more than one bottle of Lonestar beer. References to are slipped into the script, as a getaway carriage becomes a pickup truck, and a rustic alehouse becomes a honky-tonk tavern with a jukebox.
Visually, this take on “She Stoops to Conquer” is a delight. Scenic designer Julie Sloan has contributed an adobe playhouse we are told in program notes is in the style of artist Red Grooms. As a backdrop, the dollhouse is bright, charming, and a little quirky, just like the characters in this play.
The costumes are similarly bright, especially Kate Hardcastle’s glo-pink cowgirl dress, and costume designer Staci Said gets kudos for energy and style.
I also enjoyed the musical prologue and interludes set up by director Mitchell, where the cast hoofs it up a la Urban Cowboy, and bad boy Tony Lumpkin (winningly played by Marc A. Lessman) belts out a country-and-western lament. Several performers -- notably Lessman; Krista Motley, who makes a
clever, appealing Kate; and J.W. Morrissette, just right as her down-home, long-winded father -- have fun with the material and do their best to keep the premise afloat.
To its credit, the Texas setting gives the production a sharply defined look and mood. But somehow the updating -- as well as rather fla staging of individual scenes -- interferes with the comedy.
As a result, the flirtation between Kate and her young man never really comes alive, the distinct eccentricities of the characters are blurred, the comedic bits involving the lame-brained servants are almost completely lost, and there are serious pacing problems, especially in the first act.
What that teaches us is that Oliver Goldsmith probably knew what he was doing when he wrote the play in the first place, and it is at its funniest performed straight up.
Still, if “She Stoops to Conquer” is a favorite of yours, as it is of mine, you’ll no doubt enjoy the chance to see the play in a new light, with a different slant on some familiar characters.