Prospect Theater Company
Cara Reichel, Producing Artistic Director
Melissa Huber, Managing Director
THE BELLE’S STRATAGEM
By HANNAH COWLEY
West End Theatre (Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew)
263 W. 86 St., NYC
Tickets: (212) 352-3101 or www.theatermania.com
September 27 – October 19, 2003
Directed by DAVID McCALLUM
Costumes NAOMI WOLFF
Sets MIMI LIEN
Lighting JORGE ARROYO
Sound JEREMY J. LEE
Dramaturg MELINDA FINBERG
Choreographer TRACY BERSLEY
Stage Manager BAILIE SLEVIN
Press Representation CORINNE ZADIK
Kitty Willis – Dorothy Abrahams
Tony – Christian Roulleau
Saville – Leo Kittay
Courtall – Ian Oldaker
Doricourt – Saxon Palmer
Flutter – Damian Long
Villers – Robert Bowen, Jr.
Mrs. Racket – Susan Wands
Letitia Hardy – Aysan Celik
Old Hardy – R. Paul Hamilton
Sir George Touchwood – Ed Vassallo
Miss Ogle – Wendy Rich Stetson
Lady Frances Touchwood – Kate MacKenzie
The always-innovative Prospect Theater Company has returned with a production of Hannah Cowley’s 1780 comedy of manners and mores, THE BELLE’S STRATAGEM. According to Prospect, this is the first time the play has been produced in New York City in a century. While I cannot verify the veracity of that claim, I do know that this is a play I have never seen marketed here before, so I will take the producer’s word for it.
In contrast to the usual romantic machinations that unfold, in THE BELLE’S STRATAGEM, the individuals (Doricourt & Letitia Hardy) who will combine to create the perfect couple have already been betrothed to one another. The trick here is that the groom-to-be is unaware of how good a match he has made, and so, his clever fiancée, not happy to be less than adored, has conspired to fill him with contempt in the hope that his disappointment will be turned, once confronted with the glorious truth, to overwhelming passion.
Of course, a masquerade ball is involved as part of THE BELLE’S STRATAGEM, complete with mistaken identities, a sexual subplot, and some choreographed group dances. The masquerade is also an opportunity for local rogue, Courtall, to attempt to, under cover of costume, seduce the devoted, married, Lady Frances Touchwood. He fails miserably. Lady Touchwood, renowned for her deep devotion to Sir George Touchwood, and her hesitancy to ever leave his side, let alone mix in society, makes an easy, if elusive mark.
The observant reader, perusing the credits, will note that the character names are part of the larger joke. Courtall, played with subdued smarminess by Ian Oldaker, is a self-proclaimed ladies’ man. Damian Long’s busy Flutter is a character that, while involved in all matters of interest, rarely gets a single detail right, in spite of an omnipresent notebook. Robert Bowen, Jr. plays Villers, a character that comments on the action and helps it along as it suits him, with subtle, catty bitchiness. Mrs. Racket and Miss Ogle, played with charm and bite by Susan Wands and Wendy Rich Stetson respectively, are the local ladies who set events in motion and then keep tight reigns on the unfolding outcomes. Aysan Celik’s alternatively sexy, clever and befuddled Letitia works well, but Saxon Palmer, as Doricourt, would have been well advised to steer clear of the William Shatneresque invocation when playing a man feigning madness to avoid his wedding. Otherwise, he falls well into the part. The only thing that does not fit well here is the set, which screams of budgetary limitations and just does not evoke any sense of well-to-do society. This, in contrast to the appropriate costumes, and the rest, was the only structural bugaboo to be found.
The script for THE BELLE’S STRATAGEM calls for the actors, often, to play directly to the audience, but that does not render it especially unique. It feels like any other romantic comedy of that era, but somehow resonates. For, this play leaves me wondering, as a testimony to Cowley’s script and the characters she created, if modern romance has gone terribly awry by our glaring failure to have masquerade balls on any night of the year except for Halloween. Perhaps not the reaction hoped for, I admit, but it made me think about the state of modern relationships, and that is something that never comes to mind.
- Kessa De Santis -