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Meet The Dress

Costumes Help Bring The Funny to This 18th-Century Comedy

STOOPS STORYTELLING: Travis Hudson and Barbara Madison hauck primp.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 4/23/2008

She Stoops To Conquer

By Oliver Goldsmith

At UMBC Theatre through April 27

It's not often that a costume gets an out-loud laugh, but when Kelly Cavanaugh takes the UMBC Theatre stage as Mrs. Hardcastle in mincing little steps, her dress gets a reaction before the actress can utter a line. The top of her red satin gown is strapped tight by a giant red ribbon, but the skirt billows out at the knees and is tied tight at the ankles, looking like a hot-air balloon ready for takeoff.

When her daughter Kate (Daphne Gardner) and niece Constance (Barbara Madison Hauck) come in, they are wearing the same style of balloon skirts in blue and yellow. They act as if there's nothing unusual about shuffling about inside medicine-ball dresses, and this only ups the comedy in Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer. These three women are 18th-century gentry from the country, and they want so badly to imitate the latest London fashions that they're oblivious to how far they've missed the mark.

Inexperienced performers often take a while to warm up, and that was certainly the case with these UMBC undergraduates. The first few scenes would limp terribly if it weren't for the giddy compensations of Elena Zlotescu's inspired costumes. Also helping is Terry Cobb's ingenious set--a series of concentric discs lifted and lowered by cables to create different scenes. In the second act, however, the young cast awakes from its somnolent start and the comedy begins to crackle.

Mr. Hardcastle intends to marry his daughter Kate off to his friend's son Charles (Kevin James), while Mrs. Hardcastle plans to marry her son Tony (Michael Houk) off to Constance. Kate, her red curls spilling out of her blue satin bonnet, is quite eager to get herself a husband, but like so many teenage boys, poor Charles is paralyzed by the prospect of talking to a "nice girl."

Charles' bashfulness is even funnier because his clothes are anything but shy--a ruffled green shirt, striped green pantaloons, and a bright blue jacket. Gardner lets us see how appalled Kate is by this spectacle and how hard she works to pretend this is a normal conversation, but still Charles bolts from the room in a panic.

Tony, on the other hand, has no problem speaking to "nice girls," because he has no interest in them whatsoever; all he cares about are ale, song, and willing peasant lasses. Wearing clownlike makeup and a pink wig that rises like a flame from his forehead, Houk bounces about the stage as Tony, jumping up on chairs when he wants to sing and darting out the nearest exit when he hears his mother coming.

Constance is in love with George, Charles' best friend, but she has to feign that she's engaged to Tony to get her inheritance--there's a funny scene where she and Tony pretend to hold hands romantically, each squeezing so tightly that the other winces in pain. Tony is so eager to get rid of his fiancée that he gladly assists her plans to elope with George.

The play's title derives from Kate's plan to stoop to a lower rung on the social ladder to conquer Charles. Realizing that the shoe-gazer never got a good look at her the first time, she poses as a poor relation helping out in the kitchen. Convinced that he's talking to a lowly barmaid, the once-stammering sad sack becomes a swaggering Don Juan who grabs Kate by the waist and offers to visit her in her room. James is very funny as the young man who thinks he's in command of the situation when he's actually a bull charging at a matador's red cape.

Through mistaken identities, plots hatched and foiled, and jewels stolen and re-stolen, the comedy builds and builds until the fifth act, when Cavanaugh crawls back onto the stage as Mrs. Hardcastle, her once-bulbous skirt now shredded and muddied after Tony has driven her carriage into a pond. She's beginning to suspect that she's not as fashionable as she thought and that Tony won't marry Constance after all. You can almost see the steam rising from Cavanaugh's disheveled hairdo as the anger and humiliation boil within her.

Director Colette Searls coaxes solid performances from all her student cast, especially from Cavanaugh, Gardner, Hauck, and Houk. The results may not be as spectacular as the Center Stage's terrific, slapstick 2000 production of the play, but it comes closer than you'd think. And you'll never see funnier costumes anywhere. H

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