The real world
Superb, saucy Pear production brings 300-year-old tale into the present with a modern groove
First performed in 1700, William Congreve's comedy "The Way of the World" is one of a handful of English plays from the century following William Shakespeare's death that are still studied and occasionally staged today. Three hundred and nine years later, it has found its way to Mountain View, in an enthusiastic and well-paced production at the Pear Avenue Theatre.
"The Way of the World" is a story of passion, deception and intricate social maneuvering. Explaining the show's plot — even the bare bones of the plot — without diagrams, footnotes and finger puppets is nigh unto impossible, but the attempt must nonetheless be made.
Edward Mirabel wishes to marry Millamont, but has so offended her aunt, the widow Lady Wishfort, that Millamont stands to lose her inheritance if the pair wed. To overcome this obstacle, Mirabel has cooked up a scheme in which his valet, Waitwell (who has secretly married Lady Wishfort's maid, Foible), is to disguise himself as a wealthy suitor for Lady Wishfort's hand. Once the old woman marries Waitwell, Mirabel intends to reveal her new husband's identity and offer to spare her from public humiliation in exchange for her blessing on his marriage to Millamont.
With quick thinking from Foible, the scheme may just succeed ... as long as Wishfort isn't tipped off by the conniving Mrs. Marwood, a supposed friend of Wishfort's daughter who is actually having an affair with the daughter's husband, Fainall. Fainall, for his part, is planning to gain control of Lady Wishfort's property himself (Millamont's inheritance included) by threatening an ugly divorce from her daughter.
Meanwhile, Wishfort has summoned her nephew, Sir Wilful Witwoud (a hard-drinking hayseed), with the intention of marrying Millamont off to him. And, throughout it all, buzzing around the fringes of these designs, are Wilful's foppish half-brother, Tony Witwoud, and Tony's dimwitted chum, Petulant.
So, to recap: A swarm of devious, over-sexed characters with silly and alliterative names engage in a battle of wits, all hoping to lay claim to an old woman's fortune through some calculated perversion of the institution of marriage. Though Congreve's language is nearly as Shakespearean as Shakespeare's — even servants and fools speak in elegant similes and syllogisms — modern audiences may be surprised by how salaciously contemporary this all feels.
Indeed, director Rebecca J. Ennals has done what she can to emphasize the trash-TV aspect of the story. Scene-change music is all contemporary, and the prologue and epilogue (which the playwright obligingly wrote in rhyming couplets) are spoken in time to the hormonal thrum of a modern club groove.
Patricia Tyler's costumes are a sexy blend of Restoration-era couture and MTV chic: rich fabrics, hard-working bustiers, exposed bra straps, petticoats, denim breeches, pleather pants and outrageous wigs. The uncredited props department has created a slew of supermarket tabloids, all bearing photos of the show's characters with scandalous headlines blaring. It's an ingenious gimmick, driving home the self-obsessed decadence of a historical era that most Americans know nothing about.
Ennals uses another clever device in the show's opening scene. As Mirabell and Fainall sit chatting in a fashionable chocolate house (the Starbucks of its time), ladling out copious amounts of backstory, the play's other characters appear and disappear behind a scrim on an upstage platform, acting out the gossip as we hear it. By allowing the audience to attach faces to the unfamiliar names, it provides a foothold that keeps all that exposition from going to waste.
But all the clever direction and design work in the world couldn't make this three-hour show comprehensible — let alone enjoyable — if the acting wasn't up to snuff. It is a testament to The Pear's reputation that it was able to draw the talent needed to cast the show successfully.
The ensemble is composed of six men and five women, several with notable Shakespearean experience, most of whom play multiple roles. (In addition to the characters mentioned above, there are a number of servants, coachmen, etc., virtually all played in drag.) It is rare, in community theater, to find so large a cast with no weak spots, but this cast has none.
Furthermore, everyone involved seems to understand the heightened performance style that is required for Restoration comedy, and everyone handles the loquacious dialogue with apparent ease.
Roberta Morris is marvelously expansive as Lady Wishfort, one moment recoiling from her mirror, shrieking, "I am absolutely decayed!" and the next moment lounging coquettishly on the chaise in a glittering pink dress, a pink wig and fuchsia platform pumps.
As Millamont, Rami Margron is sly and spunky, especially when negotiating a pre-nup that would make Gloria Steinem smile. Margron and Joseph Salazar (Mirabell) have the unenviable task of making their duplicitous characters more likable than all the other duplicitous characters in the play. Their personal charisma and chemistry help a great deal, and Alex Kirschner (Fainall) and Carla Pantoja (Marwood) help them out by upping the villainy of the opposing team.
The rest of the superb cast is: Ray Renati (Tony Witwoud), Jim Johnson (Petulant), Paul Loomis (Wilfull), Shannon Warrick (Mrs. Fainall), William J. Brown III (Waitwell), and the delightful Annamarie MacLeod as Foible.
"The Way of the World" may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the Pear Avenue Theatre's production is as lively, laugh-packed and accessible as one could hope to find in such a small venue.
What: "The Way of the World," a William Congreve play presented by Pear Avenue Theatre
Where: Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K, Mountain View
When: Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., through May 31
Cost: Tickets are $20 for Thurs. & Sun. performances, $25 for Fri. & Sat., with discounts for students and seniors.
Info: Go to www.thepear.org or call 650-254-1148.