Theater review: ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ at Mad Cow

A playwright can go a long way with a character named Tony Lumpkin.

In She Stoops to Conquer, at Mad Cow Theatre, Lumpkin (Stephen Lima) is called an “awkward booby,” but he’s more than that. As Lima plays him, he’s sly, stupid and self-satisfied – and one of the most aptly named characters in all of literature.

He’s also a stitch, and he’s just one of the many reasons that Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th-century comedy She Stoops to Conquer comes across as funny and fresh as it does. First produced in London the year of the Boston Tea Party, Goldsmith’s play and its farcical humor may depend on British class differences that don’t mean so much to us now. But its characters are so foolish – and so aware of their own foibles – that they sweep you up in their silliness. “The folly of most people is rather an object of mirth than uneasiness,” the young hero says, and he’s not the only foolish person in She Stoops to Conquer who’s absolutely right.

She Stoops to Conquer is set mostly in a provincial English drawing-room, and yet it’s as full of mistaken identities as modern-day farces and nearly as loaded with witty one-liners as Oscar Wilde. Mr. Hardcastle, a wealthy country gentleman, announces to his adored daughter Kate that the son of an old friend is journeying to meet her and that a marriage is in the offing. Kate is thrilled, but it turns out that Charles Marlow, the handsome and well-educated suitor, is bashful in the company of women of his own class.

And Marlow has other problems: He and his friend George Hastings get lost and stop at a pub for directions – and the directions they’re given, by Kate’s mischievous stepbrother Tony Lumpkin, lead them to believe that Hardcastle’s house is a roadside inn and the estimable Mr. Hardcastle simply a country innkeeper.

At the same time, the under-age Tony can’t abide the woman he’s expected to marry, his cousin Constance, and Constance is determined to run away with George Hastings as soon as they can get out from under Mrs. Hardcastle’s watchful eye.

At Mad Cow, all of this happens on an elegant little set (by Cindy White) that reverses neatly from the Hardcastles’ ever-so-civilized drawing-room to the crummy Three Pigeons Alehouse, with a hint of wintry trees representing the countrywide on either side. Jim Walker’s costumes are suitably lavish (especially the velvets and satins of the women’s gowns), and John Valines has supplied some nifty sound effects — or else there really are whinnying horses next door.

Best of all, director Katrina Ploof has led her cast not only to interact wittily with the audience (Tommy Keesling’s Mr. Hardcastle pours one theatergoer a glass of punch) but also to inject supreme high spirits into whatever they do. Just look at Leander Suleiman, who brings to the tiny role of a maid so much cleverness and self-regard that you expect the next chapter of the story to be about her.

The production adds a prologue for Suleiman, in rhymed couplets, in which she explains the nature of comedy and makes the usual no-cell-phones announcement. That prologue feels a bit stuck on, and so does an extended dance number at the very end of the play, which adds nothing but five more minutes to the proceedings.

Better to let the actors get the most out of their foolish or easily fooled characters, and most of them do. Keesling makes Hardcastle an entirely reasonable man who is so confounded by the confusion in his household that steam nearly pours out of his ears. As the eligible Charles Marlow, Brian Brightman orders the servants around with impunity but tries in vain to strikes poses in front of a woman of his own class. Melanie Whipple brings to Kate Hardcastle, the bright and dauntless heroine, the derring-do of Shakespeare’s Rosalind or Viola. And Lima, his eyes dancing, would be a terror as the duplicitous Lumpkin if he didn’t seem to be having such a grand old time.

Karel Wright’s Mrs. Hardcastle comes across as a rather generic fool, and Elizabeth Takacs’s Constance also seems a little unexceptional (although her squealing confab with Whipple’s Kate early on is very funny). Kevin Zepf makes an agreeably amused George, and Ron McDuffie and Brent Wakelin are clever in a variety of very small roles. (Michael Osowski, also playing multiple roles, is given very little to do.)

Some of the accents can be iffy, and every once in a while the rapid-fire speech in this production gives you the feeling you get sometimes in second-rate Shakespeare – that neither you nor the actors know what they’re talking about.

But more often their meaning is utterly clear, as when Lima’s fatuous Lumpkin bows so low to a visitor that he looks like he’s doing yoga, or when Keesling’s frustrated Hardcastle sputters his way through instructions to servants who will never have a clue.

The favorite expression of Goldsmith’s characters is “pshaw,” and among Mad Cow’s actors it takes on the perfect meaning: The folks we’re playing are so silly, and at the same time so jolly, that all we can do is laugh.

‘She Stoops to Conquer’

What: Mad Cow Theatre production of Oliver Goldsmith comedy.
Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 19 (also, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 29 and Dec. 13).
Cost: $27 general, $25 seniors and students, $15 Mondays.
Call: 407-297-8788 Ext. 1.
Online: madcowtheatre.com.

Photos: Top right: Ron McDuffie, Leander Suleiman, Tommy Keesling and Michael Osowski. Middle left: Stephen Lima and Kevin Zepf. Botttom right: Melanie Whipple and Leander Suleiman. Photos by Tom Hurst/Mad Cow Theatre.

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