I wanted to like She Stoops to Conquer. Really, I did. Oliver Goldsmith's classic comedy of manners about trickery, mistaken identity, and the interplay between the classes is bedfellows with my favorite works of Oscar Wilde and Moliere, and The City Theatre, so I'm told, is one of Austin's greatest and most well-respected theater companies.
I must have seen a rare dud from this company.
Within the first five minutes, in which a group of five barmaids sing in such awful cockney accents even Eliza Doolittle would say "aw, I con't understand a bloody word," I knew it was going to be a long night. Sadly, I was right. She Stoops to Conquer unjustly substitutes overacting for laughs, and to poor effect.
Though the production as a whole is very flawed, there are some triumphant performances here and there. As Marlowe, a young man who is nervous around upper-class women but comfortable with the lower class, Dan Sawtelle easily oscillates between a composed, serious member of the elite to a quirky, tick-ridden, anxious boy. His tantrums at discovering the two massive tricks that have been played on him during the play are a delight to watch.
Another standout is Scot Friedman as Mr. Hardcastle, the wealthy countryman who is mistaken for an innkeeper. He is constantly subtle, controlled, and focused, something that a wealthy landowner trying to arrange a marriage between his daughter and the son of another wealthy family undoubtedly would be. And as George Hastings, Heath Thompson is quite convincing as the charming best friend of Marlowe's and the dashing lead of the play's secondary plotline.
But Michelle Cheney gives the most comedic and memorable performance of the night as Mrs. Hardcastle. Armed with a fantastic wig and costume combination that makes her look like a poodle/Glinda the Good Witch on crack, Ms. Cheney creates an over-the-top character that is one part Lady Bracknell from The Importance of Being Earnest and one part Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development. While she does her share of scenery chewing and has many moments of hysterics, they always work within the scene and are always motivated by her character. Ms. Cheney doesn't resort to sitcom-esqe behavior to get a laugh; she does because it makes sense, and the laugh is simply the result.
Sadly, the work of these four fine actors is considerably undermined by the other performers in the production. Katie Green and Anna Schattte are pleasant but not entirely memorable as Kate Hardcastle and Constance Neville. As Tony Lumpkin, Ben McLemore shouts nearly every line he has in a cockney accent which is extremely out of place considering that his character is the son of the wealthy Mrs. Hardcastle. And in addition to their awful accents mentioned above, the ensemble of five women that play drunks, barmaids, and servants all pull focus and turn in shamelessly annoying performances. They even pull focus during what should be quick and unnoticeable scene changes by singing during them, and in the second act I actually heard some audience members groan anytime they entered. Alli Huston is probably the worst of the bunch. After one line of dialogue references how she stiffly carries her arms, Ms. Huston walks like a robot for the remainder of the scene, and in act two she delivers every line she has in a helium voice.
The creative team also has its share of missteps. The set, designed by Andy Berkovsky and Bridget Farias, consists of three very cheap looking screens which makes it difficult for the audience to picture a lavish, opulent country manor. The two-dimensional cardboard-cutout trees used at the end of act two are laughable and distracting as well. While it's understandable that some theater companies may have difficulty fronting the bill for a suitable set, a bare stage would have suited this play beautifully and would have allowed the audience to focus on the characters. As for the costumes, some are original pieces by Bert Flanagan and others are rented from Costumed Occasions. It's clear which ones were rented. The original pieces look like they were swiftly constructed. The lumpy, ill-fitting, barely tailored dress worn by Kate Hardcastle in act two is particularly awful. It's more appropriate for Eponine in Les Miserables than it is for a young lady of the upper class.