“THAT’S – OVER – ACTING!” bellows Mr. Hardcastle (Benjamin Curns) to Young Charles Marlow (Gregory Jon Phelps) at the climax of hilarity of The American Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Oliver Goldsmith’s late 18th century play, She Stoops to Conquer. This two-hour belly-laugh farce is OVER-ACTING, for sure, but that is not the same as BAD-ACTING! In fact, if by this time in the play, Tony Lumpkin (John Harrell) has not taken you for a circular night-time ride though country lane, forest, mud-bogs, and dumped you into the horse-pond just steps away from the manor house, then the company must be using bad-acting.
In She Stoops to Conquer, Goldsmith weaves deceptions, misunderstood identities, lots of gags, and social criticism into a night of finding love. Mr. and Mrs. (Allison Glenzer) Hardcastle are attempting to arrange marriages for their son and daughter, Tony and Kate (Lee Fitzpatrick). Additionally, Mrs. Hardcastle has charge of her niece, Constance Neville (Emily Brown). She sees matching Tony and Constance as a way to keep them both, and their fortunes, under her thumb. Mr. Hardcastle has arranged for the son of one of friends in town to come court Kate.
Of course the children want none of this. Tony prefers being left to go to the pub, to drink and sing. Constance has her eyes on George Hastings (Dylan Paul), whom she has met when in town. Kate fears that a young man, who must have his father arrange a marriage, must not be appealing. Young Marlow prefers to flirt with the house maids rather than court the ladies. With so many conflicted motivations and expectations, we can see love-hate triangles forming with each scene.
From the opening scenes, we can see that these characters will fill the stage with wild gestures, expressions, layers of wigs and petticoats. Mrs. Hardcastle’s head dresses start as a domestic mop-cap ??, but by the final scenes will have grown to an over-size bee hive style riding hat. Mr. Hardcastle’s dress will not change, but his eye-popping and jaw dropping facial expressions will stretch him nearly beyond that line about over-acting. Kate will exaggerate her dialect from a refined gentry to haughty ?? bar maid to show Young Marlow’s prejudices toward women. Marlow and Hastings, believing that they have been sent to an inn, will flop into chairs and sofas, put their boots on the furniture and order Hardcastle to get them punch and supper.
All of this foolery starts, when Tony, always the practical joker, meets Marlow and Hardcastle at the pub. They are unsure of their way to Hardcastle’s home, where Marlow is to meet Kate. Tony devises to convince them that Hardcastle’s home is a day’s drive way. Instead, he rolls into a Texan-drawl to convince them that the house just up the road is really an inn. With this idea planted, Marlow and Hastings are destined to violate social conventions for young men pursuing gentlewomen.
Hastings and Constance will quickly find each other in Hardcastle’s home. They then have the decision of whether to reveal the mistake, or keep up the pretense in order to plot their elopement. Of course, the later give more room for more jokes about mistaken identities. Now, their reserved behavior, stolen kisses, and evasive glances become more broad with each restrain. We know they should be playing big, but are actually playing small to avoid notice. At one point, Hastings has procured Constance’s dowery jewels, and given them to Marlow for storage with their luggage. His ploy is to slip them out from Mrs. Hardcastle when he and Constance ride off to France. When he learns that Marlow has turned them back over to Mrs. Hardcastle, believing her to be the inn keeper’s wife, Hastings turns to us in the audience with a horrified expression. Quickly, he says aside, “I shall put on a good face”, waves his hand across his face, turning his gaping mouth to a broad smile. Ha, ha, ha.
Marlow will have his time at gesturing, swallowing his words, bowing, and stumbling in embarrassment when he meets Kate. He is so absorbed with his anxiety among gentlewomen, that latter, he has no idea what Kate looked like. This is a perfect set up for him to woo her without realizing. He is quit the womanizer of those whom he deems wenches. When Kate returns a few scenes later, dressed by her father’s expectation, as a country maid, Marlow mistakes her for the bar maid. No stumbling and stammering now. He is all eyes, bravado, and machismo, full of his ability to make a woman wanton. Kate, of course, realizes his downfall and leads him closer and closer to the cliff, with her feigned accent, flirtatious eyes, and swishing skirt.
The company expands this production until the stage can almost not contain it. In their tradition of engaging audience members, they almost pulled us too much into the play. We in the front were referred to as simple country folk, whom the ladies found droll. Others were identified as snobs from town or surly bar flies. At one point, a young woman blew a kiss to Marlow, who caught it and pressed to his check, not missing a line from his role, as he flirted back with yet another sultry maid. Mrs. Hardcastle relieved her exhausted feet by sitting in a man’s lap, only to receive a hug back.
Should you have any breath left from laughing at the end of this production be sure to give a hoot and holler, and join the cast in singing the chorus to Tony’s bar song, “It’s better than drinking alone”.