nytheatre.com review by Susan Jonas
March 2, 2010
The Queen's Company offers a delicious production of The Wonder, a comedy of intrigue by Susanna Centlivre. Along with her better-known contemporaries, George Farquhar and William Congreve, she was one of the most successful playwrights of the Post-Restoration and among the most produced for the next century, and as this show indicates, she is ripe for rediscovery.
The story is as old as Roman Comedy, but told with ingenuity and charm, and from a female perspective. Don Lopez intends to marry his daughter, Donna Isabella, to a wealthy old man she loathes. To protect against her threat to kill herself or join a convent to escape her fate, Don Lopez locks her in her room until her wedding the next day. She jumps out of her window, falling conveniently in the arms of Colonel Britton, an inveterate rover who is nonetheless smitten. Isabella "swoons" and he carries her into a house which he believes to be hers. It is in fact the house of Donna Violante, who happens to be in love with Isabella's brother, Don Felix. But Violante's father, Don Pedro, has other plans for her; he intends to send her to a convent so he can extort her inheritance. Both women resist their imposed destinies. Violante agrees to hide Isabella and keep her secret. But when the Colonel returns to house to see Isabella, whom he believes to be "Violante," he is spotted by Felix who assumes his beloved, the real Violante, has betrayed him. Confronted by her angry lover, Violante can't explain the presence of the Colonel without breaking her promise to Isabella, prompting a series of misunderstandings. As the mayhem escalates, so does Violante's resourcefulness.
Fabulous fabrications, disguises, assignations, concealed lovers, and hair's breadth escapes—the circuitous unfolding of events is no less pleasing for being both improbable and predictable; the execution is all. Centlivre was celebrated for her intricate plots and compelling characterizations, but criticized for her dialogue. If her repartee sacrifices a bit of wit, it benefits considerably from greater naturalness and speed. No wonder Centlivre's work thoroughly exploits theatrical devices, nor that it is a meal for actors; Centlivre was herself an accomplished actress particularly famed for "breeches parts."
How fitting that The Wonder is being produced by the all-female The Queen's Company. In her program note, director Rebecca Patterson explains that among the "compelling reasons for all-female casts, the most obvious...[is]...the wealth of untapped talent and interpretations of our female actors." Centlivre, an outspoken advocate of women's rights, would heartily agree, and Patterson's assertion is manifested by the inventive cast.
Actress Natalie Lebert is a marvel as the lion's share of the supporting cast, with split-second transformations from Isabella's lusty maid, to the King's formidable marshal, to the Gibby, the philosophical Scottish footman with the (intentionally) unintelligible accent. Valerie Reid is an elegant Isabella, and Maryam Benganga captures the sleazy foppish appeal of her Colonel. Abbi Hawk is vivacious and quick-witted in the tour-de-force role of Violante, and as her dashing "spurned" lover Felix, Virginia Baeta is all swagger and sighs. The duo is best with the farcical elements, but could be more vulnerable in the tender moments. Especially winning is Amy Driesler, who is utterly persuasive as the Colonel's scoundrel servant Lissardo, an incorrigible but gauche Don Juan, offering an effective foil to his more suave but no less horny master. The standout performance is Annie Paul as Violante's maid, Flora—as irresistibly saucy a soubrette as I have ever seen; her alertness and sly humor often draw your eyes to her, even when she is merely listening from the side. Centlivre gives Flora some of the best insights about class and gender, and the feisty Paul makes them her own. She also carries off a surprise finale which, though long, is simply so outrageous that it can't fail to amuse.
From Violante's bright fuchsia dress (and matching lipstick) to the Gibby's Scottish kilt and regalia, the vivid costumes, designed by Jeanette Aultz Look, appear to have been culled from a touring company's trunk, supporting the production's emphasis on playful theatricality rather than historical accuracy. The eclecticism of the directing, which mixes period, modern mannerisms, and a dash of old Hollywood, is enhanced by sound designer Jane Shaw's mischievous use of contemporary music to underscore themes. Only the set disappoints; the serviceable screens painted bright orange are distractingly ugly. And when rough use causes them to shake, it smacks of college amateurism, and undercuts the unpretentious style the director generally achieves. With the script effectively streamlined by the director Rebecca Patterson, this fast-paced show runs a brisk entertaining two hours and 20 minutes.
There is more than enough here to recommend The Wonder. This production offers a rare opportunity to acquaint yourself with a wonderful playwright whose oeuvre of eminently producible plays producers have yet to discover; the wonder is how Centlivre disappeared from the repertory. It's also a chance to get to know The Queen's Company, not only for its laudable mission, but moreover for the skill and joy they exhibit. And who better to ask:
And why this Wrath against the Womens Work? Perhaps you'll answer,
because they meddle
with things out of their Sphere:
But I say, no; for since the Poet is born,
why not a Woman as well as a Man?
- Dedication, The Platonick Lady, by Susanna Centlivre, 1706