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Stage Review: PICT stretches to present comedy 'She Stoops'

Wednesday, July 17, 2002

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

The comedy is aptly named. In "She Stoops to Conquer," the spirited Kate masquerades as a servant in order to bypass the social/sexual inhibitions of the eligible Mr. Marlow and liberate him from his inability to relate to "nice" women.

"She Stoops to Conquer"

Where: Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre at City Theatre, South Side.

When: Through July 27; 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays and July 27.

Tickets: $22-$25; 412-394-3353.


I'm sure there's some fancy name for this psycho-sexual maladjustment, but Oliver Goldsmith (1730-74) is determined to treat it with indulgent comedy. So he gives Kate the powers of a Shakespearean comic heroine -- though she masquerades as only a maid, not a man -- and brings about a cure.

There's enough transformation left over to free the second young couple and booby squire from the booby's booby mother. Her oddity also has a bit of a sexual tinge, but Goldsmith is too nice to harp on that.

Even the booby, aptly named Lumpkin, turns out to be a surprisingly good sort with whom Goldsmith may secretly identify. So it may be said that Goldsmith also stoops to conquer, softening satire with sentiment. And conquer he did: "She Stoops" was the financial hit he needed, though his life had but a year to run.

As to the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, in "She Stoops" it tackles an elaborate period comedy that demands investment (both financial and artistic) in manner and style. But it also requires careful balance between wit and warmth, affectation and naturalness, detail and speed. Unfortunately, rather than stooping to conquer, PICT feels more like standing on tippy-toe, straining.

Conquer, it does. This is a substantial, handsome staging of a famous play. The cast is capable, Matthew York's set attractive and flexible, Pei-Chi Su's costumes gorgeous and Doug Levine's musical accompaniment apt (he even co-opts a musical motif from "The Beggar's Opera").

And yet PICT does not make clear why this play should be loved, not just respected. It conquers by force, when Goldsmith deserves to be wooed more gently.

I suppose director Melanie Dreyer is responsible. Most of the elements she marshals seem right enough, but too many actors are working so hard to be stylish and pronounce everything correctly that there's no time to be funny.

That malady mainly afflicts Darren Eliker's Marlow. In the key scene where his shyness cripples his meeting with Kate, Eliker's strangulated gestures and rhetoric are brought to a baroque pitch. He's exhausting, not funny. Even Marlow's relaxed wooing, later, seems mannered; it's hard for us to root for him.

This is not Eliker's problem alone. The always likable Michael Fuller is screwed up to an unnecessarily affected pitch, as is Colleen Delany. Even the ineffable Barbara Russell seems afraid to miss a pronunciation, determined to earn her laughs rather than let them happen. This self-conscious over-stylization extends also to small roles.

Only Tessa Klein's Kate is free of it, shining with the unaffected good humor that best matches the spirit of Goldsmith's play. Matthew Gaydos' Lumpkin is similarly at ease, his surly boyish bombast kept to believable size. Roger Jerome's bewildered head of the family seems based on Hugh Griffith's Squire Western in "Tom Jones"; he also does a quick vocal imitation of Winston Churchill, appropriate because he's telling about the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill's ancestor.

Maybe the problem is speed. Better pace would give extra comic edge to funny moments. And the cast needs to clear up some shaggy line readings and missed cues.

If it seemed less of a burden, the stylization could be funnier. The cast gives a master class in country dialects, featuring a symphonic range of u-sounds.

"She Stoops to Conquer" is funny enough, but it could be funnier. Maybe it will relax, stoop lower and conquer more.

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