By Margaret Gray
5:00 PM EDT, July 5, 2013
Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer” may not be Shakespeare, but the audience at the Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival will probably understand why the Independent Shakespeare Co. chose this frothy, harmless comedy to launch its 10th alfresco season.
Dating to 1773 and the start of the Industrial Revolution, “She Stoops” is set in the country, backwards, uncouth — and the perfect spot for city-dwellers to rub off their restrictive polish. Fugitives from the I-5 or the I-134 who have climbed to the festival's wooden stage, set in a clearing beside the abandoned bear caves of the old Griffith Park Zoo, don't have to struggle to imagine the thrilling disorientation of the Londoners in the story.
And when the villainess, Mrs. Hardcastle (a delightful Bernadette Sullivan), gets lost in her own backyard an hour or so later, her discomfort and fear are unusually credible: The sun has set, moths are dive-bombing and yipping coyotes provide a disconcerting soundtrack. (Also, a June bug wound up in the shorts of one member of my party.) Selecting plays that work with Mother Nature’s design skills makes both dramatic and business sense for this mom-and-pop company committed to providing free outdoor theater.
One of ISC’s founders, Melissa Chalsma, directs; the other, David Melville, stars as the antihero Charles Marlow, who in the history of comedies of manners exhibits possibly the worst. Marlow cowers and cringes in upper-class company, especially ladies, but he treats servants with brash entitlement. Both maladaptive habits prove comically fruitful when he’s tricked into believing that the country estate of his father’s old friend Mr. Hardcastle (Danny Campbell), where he has been sent to court Hardcastle’s daughter, Kate (Claudia de Vasco), is an inn. He treats his host with lordly contempt; although he can’t even look at Kate when he is formally introduced to her, he later mistakes her for a barmaid and morphs into a leering lothario.
The good-humored, practical-minded Kate apparently thinks he’s cute anyway; she and her half-brother Tony Lumpkin (a charming André Martin) and cousin Constance (Erika Soto) conspire with Marlow’s friend Hastings (Nikhil Pai) to prolong Marlow’s useful confusion, dispatch a host of other complications and engineer engagements for all.
The company exudes conviviality, making the audience feel part of the show with ad-libbed jokes and invitations onto the stage. Before intermission, the Hardcastle family’s hapless servants (Julia Aks, Kevin Rico Angulo and Thomas Ehas) plug the concession stand’s kettle corn and cupcakes. Kate Bishop’s costumes, which add 1970s glam-rock touches to 1770s fashion, exemplify the evening’s easygoing and playful attitude.
“She Stoops to Conquer.” Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival, the Old Zoo, 4730 Crystal Springs Dr., Los Angeles. 7 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. In repertory; see website for schedule. Ends July 27. Free. (818) 710-6306 or www.iscla.org. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.
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