Low comedy in high style

The Baltimore Sun

The ambitious Chesapeake Shakespeare Company spent more than six months putting together its current production of The Country Wife - much of it mastering the intricate movement style required of Restoration theater.

And every single minute of the troupe's hard work shows in this glittering version of William Wycherley's bawdy comedy from 1675.

Restoration theater is among the most difficult acting styles to master, but what's most impressive isn't the way the performers flip their fans or mince around stage with their feet turned out. Under Heather Nathans' sure direction, the mannerisms never overwhelm the acting.

This is a production that holds its own, ounce for ounce, with the big fish in the classical pond - Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, which last fall staged a different Restoration comedy, William Congreve's The Way of the World. It's as if the Aberdeen IronBirds were to tie the Baltimore Orioles in an exhibition game. It's not an impossible feat by any means, but it's certainly unexpected, since the major-league team has all the advantages.

The Chesapeake company is composed of actors who also have day jobs and, not surprisingly, its bench isn't as deep as that of the fully professional Washington troupe. Performances falter in a few, smallish roles. But the local production is the clearer and more accessible of the two, and - perhaps because it is staged in a 100-seat black-box theater - the more intimate.

That said, Restoration comedy is a bit of an acquired taste. It can be too convoluted and clever by half, too enamored of its own wordplay. It's to the actors' credit that the dialogue generates lots of laughs.

In Wycherley's sex farce, the aptly named Horner pretends to be impotent to gain access to the wives of men he plans to cuckold. The newly married Pinchwife is wise to Horner's scheme, and keeps his wife a virtual prisoner to prevent her from being seduced. Meanwhile, Pinchwife's sister, Alithea, is determined to honor her engagement to a fop, though she loves another suitor.

Rebecca Ellis is a hoot as the willful and impetuous title character, who constantly blurts out whatever is on her mind - and who is just as constantly being shushed. It's great fun to see conflicting urges battle it out on Ellis' expressive face.

Scott Alan Small is virile and charming as the rake, Horner. Fresh performances also are supplied by Lesley Malin, as the all-too-conscientious Alithea (though it would be nice to see more of the character's inner struggle); by Scott Graham as her smitten suitor; and by Annie Grier as a saucy maid.

It's instructive that the most broadly comic roles result in both the strongest and weakest performances. As the fop, Sparkish, Frank Mancino is the human equivalent of meringue - all fluff - while Dave Gamble is a fatuous delight as the easily hoodwinked Sir Jasper Fidget.

Mancino and Gamble's portrayals are every bit as over the top as are those of their less-effective colleagues. So why are the former believable, while the latter (who shall remain unnamed) are not? Perhaps it's because Mancino and Gamble seem physically relaxed. They never screw up their faces, or seem to strain, or subliminally express reservations about their own performances.

I doubt that Kristina Lambdin had $1 million to spend on her sumptuous costumes, but she makes it appear as though that was her budget. When upon occasion the script gets too arch, you can momentarily tune out, and watch those gorgeous garments shimmer and gleam.

if you go

The Country Wife runs through March 1 at the Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City. Tickets are $15-$25. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Call 866-811-4111 or go to chesapeakeshakespeare.com.

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