The pretense of the elite is always a good butt for a joke. In the 18th century, the theatre style Comedy of Manners, excelled at displaying the folly of those who has wealth enough to be fools. Richard Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, playing at the Blackfriar Theatre in Staunton, VA, outwitted the gentry in their desire to escape their boredom by generating scandals to amuse themselves.
Looking at the cast list, we need only to read the character’s names to know that a lampoon will hit its target: Lady Sneerwell, the Teazle and Surface families, Harry Bumper, Benjamin Backbite, Snake, et al. The question is how will the cast carry off a mad-cap script.
Do not expect a serious expression or recitation of a line in a scandalous play. The characters start big and with their own hot-air expand their egos until the balloons pop. To illustrate the clowning that the company does, I shall describe three intricately timed scenes.
The play opens in Lady Sneerwell’s (Ginna Hoben) room where she and Snake (Rene Thornton Jr.) discuss their plot to create a scandal by forging love letters. They discuss two brothers, Joseph Surface (Grant Davis) and Charles Surface (Chris Johnston). As they mention their names, describing their attributes and foibles, they pick up a hair brush and mirror. While this initially seemed to be business to do while talking, it became evident that the brush represented one brother and the mirror the other. One brother would be all consumed with his presentation, the other with looking at himself. Soon the business of grooming became the symbols of grooming these brother’s into their faux scandal.
Some scenes later, we meet Charles, the playboy brother carousing with his drinking friends. Their desires are ephemeral and mostly fueled by a stout drink. They break into a drinking song, of course, which is punctuated with a pounding of their pewter tankards on the table, then tankard to tankard. The song continues and the tankard-tapping becomes more elaborate until they create pairs and lines of drinkers rhythmically tapping their mugs in time with their clogging style steps.
Finally, this same Charles, in order to fund his spree filled lifestyle, seeks to sell what possessions he has not already pawned or discarded. Unknown to him, his uncle whom he has not seen for years, pretends to be a potential buyer of the family portrait gallery. The scene occurs after the intermission break. During the intermission, the cast has gone about the audience handing out empty picture frames. At the appointed time, the audience members hold up the frames in front of their faces. They become the ancestors of Charles in the picture gallery, described in various detail.
Eventually, the rumors and schemes entangle the targets and the plotters. All are sorted out, the couples are united with the mate they deserve, the lies are reveals and corrected, the haughty are laid low, and the loyal rewarded. A good laugh is had by all. I’m sure the next day, someone would start a new scandal.