Pre-show publicity to the contrary, there are no heaps of rotting fruit or mounds of steaming horse manure in the Berkeley Repertory Theatre intended to re-create the stench of Restoration England, the setting of George Farquhar's The Beaux' Stratagem. Director Mark Wing-Davey has settled for a few apples and squash (I think), tastefully tucked under the lip of the stage, along with wispy clumps of hay scattered here and there.
It's not just that I was looking forward to all those earthy effects; I think he was onto something much more theatrical than mere period authenticity. A Berkeley Rep newsletter reprints Wing-Davey's first rehearsal talk. He discusses the context for Restoration theater, how plays were performed outdoors, using tennis courts and other non-stage settings. That audiences were bombarded by the sights, sounds, and — yes — smells all around them. He encourages his cast to wear lots of perfume, the 18th-century equivalent of Right Guard.
While his remarks expanded on his philosophy of creating “a sense of the present” in the historical past, I think Wing-Davey was also looking to re-create the exuberance that comes with sheer excess. He was interested in putting onstage what film director Tony Richardson was able to capture in Tom Jones. Remember the prototypical eating-as-seduction scene? Making use of the immediate here-and-now nature of theater by assaulting an audience's noses as well as our eyes and ears is a brilliant idea.
But — can you imagine a theater full of rubbish and a stage populated by heavily perfumed actors in Northern California's bastion of sensitivity and political correctness? To paraphrase an old bumper sticker, “Scents in Berkeley? Noooooo!”
So what we have is a Beaux' Stratagem that uses other ways to arrive at outrageous excess: a combination of ingenious staging solutions and somewhat-too-clever “modernisms.” The stage is dressed from time to time with a kitchen wall clock, an electric washing machine, a working shower. One of the romantic leads keeps an electric guitar in a glowing red closet, and takes it out periodically for a rousing rock number.
These diversions are lively, to be sure, but what makes the play soar and pushes it home free is an unadorned and (I believe) unscented clown by the name of Geoff Hoyle. Not to belittle the rest of this wonderful cast, but it is Hoyle who gets us laughing — really laughing, not just smiling in appreciation of the artful contrivances we see around us.
The story in brief: Aimwell (Gregory Wallace) and Archer (Dave Rasner), a pair of randy young gentlemen who have squandered their inheritances, arrive at an inn in the country town of Lichfield, searching for a pair of rich (and they hope naive) countrywomen to marry. To create the necessary impression of careless wealth, Aimwell masquerades as his own older brother, Lord Aimwell, and Archer poses as his servant. They dress up in their best finery, arrive at church in a manner designed to draw attention, and scope out the room. Quickly they spot Mrs. Sullen (Diana LaMar), unhappy wife of a brutish lout, and Dorinda (Julie Eccles), sister to the piggish Squire Sullen (Brian Keith Russell) and daughter to the wealthy Lady Bountiful (Joy Carlin). Aimwell and Archer, their eyes on their respective prizes — Aimwell is smitten by Mrs. Sullen, Archer by Dorinda — proceed to the Sullen estate where Aimwell feigns illness to prolong their visit. Attended and assisted by the squire's bumbling and frequently drunk servant, Scrub (Hoyle), each manages to insinuate himself into his chosen lady's heart.
Meanwhile, the innkeeper (Charles Dean) and his daughter, Cherry (Delia MacDougall), have decided that their ostentatious guests must be robbers, so they enlist the aid of their own in-house highwayman, Gibbet (Kelvin Han Yee). There's lots of talk about money, £10,000 being the magic number that seems to ensure lifelong wealth. There are discourses on the inequities women suffer at losing their property when they marry. (The husband gets it; she's only worth anything when she's single.) There is the 11th-hour arrival of Mrs. Sullen's brother, Sir Charles Freeman (Victor Talmadge), to rescue her from her loveless marriage and free her up to wed Aimwell. There is a divorce (virtually unheard of in the period), reconciliation, romance, and good fortune: Everybody winds up with a £10,000 bankroll and all is well.
What makes this comedy viable is its lively language, its solid structure, and its cleverly crafted characters. Playwright George Farquhar, who died a pauper in 1707, would clearly have been a feminist, and his arguments on behalf of women are eloquent and heartfelt.
But this Beaux' Stratagem succeeds thanks to Wing-Davey's inventiveness, beginning with the entrance of the two gentlemen at the inn via a trap door in the floor. Nothing will be as it seems, a promise Wing-Davey follows up on with Archer's rock-'n'-roll accompaniment. If it's all a bit forced at first, neither director nor cast lose their nerve, and the merriment proceeds to build as the play unfolds.
Hildegard Bechtler has designed a beautifully sleek, modernistic set with country touches of the period. Every time the turntable at center revolves, another surprise is revealed: the aforementioned washing machine, which serves as a subtle sexual aid to Dorinda while Archer woos her; the shower in Aimwell and Archer's room at the inn; the red closet with the electric guitar setup; and a host of other treats. The traditional elements of farce — many doors, many exits and entrances — are further skewed by the sizes of the doors, one short, one tall.
The Rep company, augmented by a few new faces, is a knockout ensemble. Gregory Wallace makes a smashing debut here as Aimwell. Last seen in Angels in America at ACT, Wallace draws on his extensive classical training to infuse Aimwell with authority as well as impertinence. Dave Rasner's Archer is an energetic romantic lead, pursuing his quarry with enthusiasm, good looks, and a singular way with an electric guitar.
Julie Eccles makes a charming Dorinda, and Diana LaMar gives Mrs. Sullen grace, beauty, and wit. She also enjoys a breathtaking moment at the end of the first act, when she's standing on a chair, illuminated by a spotlight (gorgeous lighting by Michael Chybowski), delivering a sincere discourse on the injustice endured by women at the hands of boorish husbands.
Joy Carlin lends a deliciously droll Margaret Rutherford spin to Lady Bountiful, who earnestly treats the ills of all her villagers, reputedly killing them as often as she cures them. Charles Dean is memorable as the landlord who sniffs and tastes his mug of ale as though it were a vintage wine. Brian Keith Russell is thoroughly loutish as Squire Sullen, and Kelvin Han Yee has a marvelous time tracking dirt all about as the filthy highwayman Gibbet.
Still, it is Hoyle who stands out, Hoyle who succeeds in investing his performance with the rich complications of comic genius: Hoyle as Scrub attempting to sound knowledgeable; the drunken Scrub trying to keep his balance as the turntable revolves for a scene change; Scrub rushing to the rescue after Aimwell's “collapse,” pushing a modern wheelchair down a long flight of stairs. In these moments we in the audience turn to each other to share a laugh and, in doing so, create the true community of theater that brings life to the play — rock-'n'-roll music and aromatic bundles of hay notwithstanding.
The Beaux' Stratagem runs through Oct. 27 at Berkeley Rep; call (510) 845-4700.