Prospect Theatre Company proudly proclaimed that their production of Hannah Cowley's 18th-century farce The Belle's Stratagem is the play's first production in 100 years. While it's a laudable act for a theatre company to resurrect forgotten or neglected plays, the fact remains that there are reasons why some plays go 100 years without getting produced.
One reason that The Belle's Stratagem hasn't been seen in a while is that (in the words of its own epilog) it is "Nothing New." Written in 1780, Belle's is a witty farce that pokes fun at the married life of English nobility. It's a formulaic battle-of-the-sexes story that charges headlong to its predictable happy ending, dragging all the prerequisite cheeky servants, mistaken identities, and crazy capers in its wake. The story was done to death by Shakespeare 200 years before Cowley got to it, and the similarities to Much Ado About Nothing are startling. A war, a masked ball, a plot to marry a confirmed bachelor, and a subplot to break up a happy marriage are present in both (plus much more).
Another reason this play hasn't been performed in 100 years is the fact that it is Cowley's dissection of 18th-century English ladies; a theme that was outdated as soon as the corset and bustle went out of style. The issue of ladylike behavior made for a capital conversation in Queen Victoria's parlor, but it's hardly something for 21st-century audiences to dissect.
This does not necessarily mean that Belle's is a bad play. Although her story is very dated, Hannah Cowley's wit still works, very well in fact, and no doubt did so back in 1780. With her razor-tongued characters lashing at each other constantly and using an avalanche of asides to share private jokes with the audience, The Belles' Stratagem holds its own with any of its contemporaries.
The script gives plenty of opportunity for a farcical cast to show off their zaniness, and much fun was had among the principal cast as well as the supporting players. At times the gags went over the top, but Director Davis McCallum reigned in the farce almost all of the time. Tracy Bersley added to the craziness by choreographing a silly waltz for a scene set at a masked ball.
Costumes (Naomi Wolff, Jocelyn James) were passable (possibly under-financed) representations of period outfits, with the men in pantaloons and women wearing full skirts, but some of the Belles inexplicably wore their corsets Madonna-style, on the outside (who knew the Blonde Ambition tour made it to 18th-century London?).
The set (Mimi Lien) was over-ambitious as well. The back wall of the theatre consisted of massive panels on hinges, which were pulled open occasionally to alter the set. An excellent concept for grand sets that could be easily changed, but, perhaps, it also suffered from a lack of resources.
Hopefully Prospect will continue to excavate forgotten plays from the past and will find more exceptional works than Cowley's dated farce.
(Also featuring Dorothy Abrahams, Christian Roulleau, Leo Kittay, Ian Oldaker, Saxon Palmer, Damian Long, Robert Bowen Jr., Susan Wands, Aysan Celik, R. Paul Hamilton, Ed Vassallo, Wendy Rich Stetson and Kate MacKenzie)
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Copyright 2003 Charles Battersby