OREM — Before the show started, the lights dimmed and an usher came out onto the UVU Noorda stage to ask us as an audience to please leave our phones on throughout the performance. Moments later, Jack Kyle Oram, stooped with affected age and adorned in white tights and a wig, waddled out and sent me the following text message: “ACT I: Containing a tedious dialogue about traveling to London in order to acquaint the viewer with Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle.”
She Stoops to Conquer is the latest from director Christopher Clark and the UVU theater department, and it’s one of the most delightful, wildly inventive bits of theater I’ve seen. As you might expect with a Restoration comedy classic, there’s enough romance, intrigue, missing jewels, mistaken identity, and bawdy humor to keep the chaos going for two-and-a-half hours. What you might not expect is that, while these 18th century English ladies and gentlemen ride in horses and carriages, they also come bearing laptops, Rock Band, and karaoke machines (complete with string quartet, baroque-inspired renditions of Lady Gaga). Flirtations take place on instant message, and plot points are conveyed in characters’ Facebook—excuse me, Visagebook—statuses. Blogs replace monologues, and the audience receives character asides as text messages. And if this all sounds a bit silly—well, it is. But it’s also pretty smart. She Stoops to Conquer is a play about secrets kept and secrets discovered, about social status and relationship statuses. When our heroine, Kate (Heather Diana Murdock), asks her father to hide behind a screen, she points to her Macbook and the message is clear: We really haven’t changed all that much in the last two-and-a-half centuries.
Written in 1773, She Stoops to Conquer takes place in the Hardcastles’ home in the English countryside, where two young London gentlemen, Hastings (Trevor Robertson) and Marlow (Jason Sullivan), spend the night as guests—and spend their time making and breaking romantic alliances with the young female members of the Hardcastle household.
The fourteen student actors and actresses throw themselves heart and soul into the madness, and everyone has their moment in the spotlight. Robertson demonstrates a mastery of physical comedy and timing as the outlandish fop Hastings; Jake Suazo’s Mr. Hardcastle swerves between merriment and patriarchal tantrum-throwing; Leviticus Brown is an endearingly roguish bastard stepson; and Aubrey Warner’s emotional breakdown as Mrs. Hardcastle is one of many comic highlights. Members of the supporting ensemble—Daniel Anderson, Greg Larson, Robbie X. Pierce, Jack Kyle Oram, and Eric Phillips—are just as strong. But it’s the chemistry between Murdock’s Kate and Sullivan’s Marlow that not only gives the show its heart, but also provides many of the night’s best and biggest laughs. Murdock is lively, lovely, and effortlessly funny and charming, and Sullivan, with his physical stumbling and verbal fumbling, is a gloriously goofy romantic lead.
It would be wrong to write a review of this show and not mention Daniel Whiting’s extraordinary set design. The stage is a massive cross-section of a three-story English manor, including multiple rooms on each floor, a tavern, a garden, and a stable (with horses!). The enormity of the scope is matched only by the intricacy of the details, with paneled walls, period paintings, and mounted antlers; the vibrant colors coupled with the dollhouse-like meticulousness reminded me of a Wes Anderson film. Kristi Summers’s lavish costuming is the icing on the cake. I’ve rarely seen a college production that looks as good as this one.
There were a few technical difficulties when I saw the show on opening night—and with all the multimedia that’s used there were bound to be. She Stoops can also be a bit uneven at times; while nearly all of the actors shine, the ensemble as a whole doesn’t always completely cohere into the sort of musical precision and perfection that tends to be the hallmark of the best farce. Still, the boundless creativity, enthusiasm, and talent more than make up for any minor shortcomings, and I have no reservations whatsoever in recommending UVU’s production of She Stoops to Conquer. You’re not likely to find a more infectiously fun night of theater anywhere.
Update: Two additional performances of She Stoops to Conquer have been scheduled for February 2 and 4 at 7:30 PM in the Noorda Black Box Theatre. Tickets are $7-11.