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Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - August 4, 2006

A rollicking frolic

Stanford Summer Theater play is comedy for comedy's sake

by Kevin Kirby

Amy Freed's play "Restoration Comedy" is actually two Restoration comedies for the price of one, and at Stanford Summer Theater's "pay what you like" price, it's a deal that can't be beat.

This zippy, visually exciting, laugh-out-loud satire is a contemporary adaptation of Colley Cibber's "Love's Last Shift" and its sequel, John Vanbrugh's "The Relapse," both originally produced in London in 1696.

Freed's hybrid tells the story of a Restoration-era rake (read "sex addict") named John Loveless. Loveless has just returned to England, having fled the country 10 years earlier to escape the stifling confines of marriage. Though he has squandered his fortune in the brothels of France, his sexual appetite is undiminished.

On his return, he encounters an old friend, Ned Worthy, who hatches a plot to reunite Loveless with his wife, Amanda, whose prudish demeanor had made monogamy even less appealing to Loveless than it would otherwise have been.

Worthy arranges for Loveless to spend the night with a mysterious woman whose sexual impulses, he says, are urgent and varied as Loveless' own. The woman, of course, is Amanda, whom Worthy quickly coaches in the ways of seduction and whom Loveless fails to recognize after their long separation. The next morning, after dazzling him with her wantonness and creativity, she reveals her identity, and Loveless decides to explore "the last remaining novelty": fidelity.

For the next three years, Amanda holds her husband's attention by assuming a different persona each night. Addressing the audience at the top of Act II, Loveless reports that he has no need for other lovers, though he interrupts himself more than once to leer at women in the audience. But unsurprisingly, John and Amanda's domestic bliss does not endure.

Three or four hilarious subplots aside, the story is that simple. There is no deep, hidden meaning. Nor is this a play from which to glean wisdom regarding matters of the heart. The script is peppered with witty observations on the nature of love, but -- coming from the mouths of characters benighted by desire -- they are seldom revelatory and frequently unsound.

Nor should the show be viewed as a cautionary tale. This is comedy for comedy's sake, and, as such, it succeeds brilliantly. "Restoration Comedy" is, quite simply, a rollicking good time.

Amy Freed's direction deserves as much credit as her writing. The Stanford production is almost uniformly excellent: Freed establishes the style and tempo, and the actors launch themselves into the far-larger-than-life roles with zest. The performances are a mix of impeccable technique and utter abandon, just as the show itself is a mix of analytic discourse and broad physical comedy.

Jennifer Erdmann (Amanda) and Leith Burke (Loveless) are particularly skillful -- able to energize the wordiest speeches and to physically convey multiple layers of subtext. Erdmann's seduction practice is one of the show's funniest scenes, as is a later scene in which Burke accosts a burly, bearded gardener on the belief that it is Amanda in disguise.

Also excellent are Jeffrey Bihr as Lord Foppington (a.k.a. Sir Novelty Fashion), an inflated dandy with a voice like curdled honey; and Sarah Moser in dual roles as Narcissa, a delightfully dim young thing who catches Worthy's eye, and as Foppington's hyper-estruating betrothed, Hoyden.

Names and contributions of the other cast members are too numerous to mention. Suffice it to say that each of the actors earns his or her place on stage. Dialect coach Lynne Soffer also deserves mention; the cast's English accents are believable, specific, and comprehensible.

The other stars of this show are Erik Flatmo's set and Connie Strayer's costumes. The versatile set -- primarily a decorated proscenium, an upstage facade painted with Raphael's indolent cherubs, and a beautifully rendered marble floor -- is eye-catching when appropriate and invisible when necessary. (Partial credit for this goes to Peter Maradudin's effective lighting design.)

The costumes are beautiful specimens of period fashion, each piece providing information about the wearer's social status and personality. Foppington's costumes are just as they should be: ostentatious and bizarre. (His Act II wig makes its own entrance, carried by a pair of litter bearers.)

One final aspect of the play is worth mentioning, namely writer/director Freed's willingness to play with anachronism and theatrical convention. In an early scene, Sir Novelty dismisses his brother with a curt: "See you in the second act." Later, searching for a place to hide, Loveless exclaims, "God, these minimalist sets! One asks for a hamper or something, but no!"

This playfulness extends to props (modern items appearing on stage include thong underwear and a bong), costumes (actors in one scene sport leather and vinyl fetish wear), and sound design (listen for the Bach Toccata and Fugue dance mix and the harpsichord rendition of "Hernando's Hideaway").

Stanford Summer Theater gives "Restoration Comedy" a PG-13 rating. The sexual themes and innuendos makes it inappropriate for pre-teens, and some young teens may find the language difficult to follow. For adults, though, this is pure "no strings attached" fun.

What: "Restoration Comedy," a play presented by Stanford Summer Theater

Where: Pigott Theater in Memorial Hall, 551 Serra Mall, Stanford University

When: Thursday-Sunday at 8 p.m., through Aug. 13

Cost: Pay what you like, all performances

Info: Call the box office at 650-725-5838. For more information, go to www.stanford.edu/group/summertheater.

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