The Belle’s Stratagem by Hannah Cowley
This OSF season is sorely testing my claim to like only death, destruction, and tragedy on the stage. First The Philander and now The Belle’s Stratagem have forced me to leave the theater grinning happily at the feel-good, happy-ending entertainment.
I can salvage my self respect only by mentioning that in both cases the plays were instructive of how old our “modern” ideas of women’s equality and liberal mores are. Belle’s Stratagem was written in 1780 and is centered on two plots: in the title story a woman figures out how to capture the heart of a man and the second plot line other concerns a country woman confronting the confusing and artificial ways of proper society. In both of these intertwined adventures the woman and men are knowing and aware of human foibles.
OSF claims that their Belle’s Stratagem is its first major production in 100 years. While Benjamin Franklin may have enjoyed this woman-written play, by the late 1800’s society had regressed. The propriety of women writing for the theater was questioned, and Hanna Cowley’s work was put on the shelf. OSF’s resurrection is a good deed.
The play itself is witty, straight-forward, and satisfying. The characters also act without malice which makes the deceptions that create the comedy stress-free for me. I often feel embarrassed for the fictional character who is making a fool of him/herself on sitcoms and farces. Even though writers since before Shakespeare have used this comedy device, I remain strangely able to feel uncomfortable while on-stage characters fall for mistaken identities and other stock ruses. Fortunately, the plans and actions in Belle’s Stratagem avoid triggering my over-sensitiveness.
The staging, directing, and acting of this period manner play is carried off superbly by the Ashland artists. The language is always understandable, the characters clear and consistent, and the sets innovative and fun. The personalities are played appropriately broadly for the comedic effect, but each player is true to a personality type, and the intensity of speech varies with the action. The actors play archetypes but not annoying caricatures of people.
The most likely characters to slip into scenery-chewing nonsense neatly avoid the trap. Michael Hume (Old Hardy) is a delightful blustering father of the belle, Mirron Willis a satisfyingly sleazy dandy, and John Tufts (Flutter) a perfect flighty gossip. Good jobs!
The leads, Gregory Linington (Doricourt) and Heather Robinson (Letitia Hardy), give believable performances in their unbelievable roles. Carole Shaffer, substituting for Demetra Pittman, is a sharp, crisp fashionable Mrs. Racket. Shad Willingham (Saville) overcomes his 6′-something lumbering appearance to deliver a character performance of a helpful friend.
Terri McMahon is a credible friend of the widow Racket. But, her scenes are stolen by the arm-puppet lap dog she manipulates while on stage. Alert little Fifi is adorable!
The show is fun, funny, and fast over its 2 1/2 hours. It’s clean, family-safe, too. Although there’s no deep meaning or revelation of the meaning of life, The Belle’s Stratagem is a no-holds-barred winner.
Ozdachs rating **** out of ***** .