By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
Some adore Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 Restoration-style comedy She Stoops to Conquer, and others loathe it. Among its admirers, there have existed enough artistic directors in the ensuing centuries to thoroughly redeem Mr. Goldsmith’s youthful reputation as a dissolute slacker. Count Quintessence Theatre Group’s Alexander Burns in the former camp. He’s running the mistaken identity romp in repertory with Hamlet, a whole other sort of identity play.
There’s so much to love about this work: its good-natured sense of humor; its battle of the sexes, with both sides well-matched; its feints at class consciousness; the way it challenges assumptions of urbanity and rusticity. The haters, however, cite its convoluted plot and lack of elegant prose. I’ve always liked it, and Quintessence’s production certainly made me laugh, but it also underscores some of the negatives.
Gentleman Marlow (Josh Carpenter), uniquely affected by the presence of a lady, can’t seem to form a coherent sentence. Get him around a barmaid, though, and he swaggers like a true player. Carpenter’s Marlow, handsome, and alternately chest-out pompous or knock-kneed impotent, makes a fine match for his intended, Sonja Field’s charming Kate Hardcastle. Sent to the Hardcastle residence by Kate’s half-brother Lumpkin (Sean Bradley) as a trick, Marlow believes the Hardcastle residence is an inn, her parents its haughty innkeepers, and Kate a tavern wench (who sports a deliberate, though anachronistic, tri-state-area accent).
There’s more to the story, of course, and you’d think it wouldn’t need much embellishment, but Burns’ spare Elizabethan courtyard set, a black platform between a pair of audience risers, and Ellen Moore’s glaringly white lighting flatten some of the show’s effervescence. Similarly, Bradley’s Lumpkin is a fool, but not the satirical kind, rather a village idiot who got lucky, and E. Ashley Izard’s Mrs. Hardcastle never finds a balance between screeching and subtle scheming. Both characterizations render some of Goldsmith’s sharper barbs inert.
To be sure, Burns’ cast has a good time here, and the updates--that accent, a rebooted prologue--understandably popular tweaks among directors, work just fine, though more would work better, and that may be this production’s chief problem. Perhaps a lack of commitment holds Burns’ vision back. Does he want to present a classic work or make a case for its relevance? I’m still not certain, and while I had a pleasant enough stay with the Hardcastles, neither their fans nor detractors will find a real home here.
Playing at: Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia. Through Sun., Nov. 24. Tickets: $10 to $25. Information: 215-987-4450 or QuintessenceTheatre.org