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Theater Review

"She Stoops to Conquer" ****

Continues through May 22 in Irish Classical Theatre Company, Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St. 853-ICTC.

Somebody once said that comedy's ultimate goal is to make serious people look foolish. Not according to Oliver Goldsmith. The 18th century playwright makes everyone look foolish -- the serious and the already foolish alike.

The proof is in Goldsmith's glorious 1773 comedy "She Stoops to Conquer." In the Andrews Theatre on Saturday night, the play was given a rousing, fleet-footed interpretation by a superb cast who brought to sparkling life a delightful assortment of fools and what you might call the marginally reasonable. All were stuck knee-deep in a crazy welter of miscommunications. Subterfuge and mistaken impressions were the order of the night, let loose by one supreme, plot-turning practical joke that had two pairs of would-be lovers always one step from the happy consummation of their love.

This joke was perpetuated by one Tony Lumpkin (Jeff Schwager), Goldsmith's crowing fool of the play. He is the spoiled son of Mrs. Hardcastle (Josephine Hogan), herself a very serious candidate for fooldom's higher honors.

Lumpkin convinces a couple of arrogant young pups by the names of Marlow (Brian Mysliwy) and Hastings (Christian Brandjes) that up the road is a fine inn run by a Mr. Hardcastle (Vincent O'Neill). The "inn" is, naturally, Mr. Hardcastle's estate, and its tradition-steeped owner doesn't take kindly to being treated like a servant by these deluded young blades, even if Marlow is the son of his esteemed friend Sir Charles Marlow (Neil Garvey).

Complicating matters is the fact that Hastings has secretly pledged his love to Mrs. Hardcastle's niece, Miss Neville (Dawn Woollacott), the very person singled out by her aunt to be the bride of the hopeless Lumpkin. It doesn't help that the cousins loathe one another and eventually fall in league in a plan to send Hastings and Miss Neville eloping into the night, carrying a box containing Mrs. H's family jewels.

Meanwhile, Miss Hardcastle (Erin Marian) -- with some pointed prompting from Dad -- is thinking that Marlow may be excellent husband material. Only thing is, though he can be a seductive charmer when it comes to women at the barmaid level or lower, he shrinks into a stammering mass of incoherent phrases and meaningless gestures in the presence of a woman of his own social status.

Mysliwy's body gestures and a perpetual quizzical look alone are amusing. But once in action he shows a sharp instinct for the absurdity of fractured communication. Marlow's interview with Miss Hardcastle has the young lady filling in all the blanks while the near-speechless suitor flails about. Mysliwy stammers, sputters, halts and backtracks. He makes odd shapes in the air. He mutters snatches of nonsense. He gets paralyzed in knuckle-to-the-floor bows. It is the great, hilarious, rib-cracking comic moment, in an evening packed full of great comic moments.

So much terrific comedy came out of this cast, it's hard to even touch upon it all. Brandjes was exceptional. Schwager, armed with a goofy accent and a tendency to bound out of his shoes at any given moment, got laughs all night long. Gerry Maher's main glory came in Diggory's opening rhymed prologue before he settled into a broadly comic rustic.

At the center of the comic mayhem was the formidable O'Neill, who served as a steady rock of an actor, periodically flashing his actor's big smile and who just happened to be wearing the world's most ridiculous wig.

Marian was relaxed and sparkling as Miss Hardcastle, and she was one of the joys of the night. While Mysliwy was deep into his stammering act, Marian's face was alive with expressions that almost seemed to nudge into existence all the emotions that Marlow could never get out. Woollacott drew a charming portrait of Miss Neville as a silly and sentimental personality.

And Hogan was a ferocious comic in her making of the fitful, brassy, fashion-crazed Mrs. Hardcastle, who had no fashion sense at all. This marvelous character was helped by a goofy set of false teeth and a ribbon-bedecked outrage of a dress that was topped by two ridiculous white feathers sprouting from her heaped hair. The dress was only one triumph of Geraldine Duskin's costumes, which surged hilariously between fake authenticity and outlandish parody.

Garvey's Sir Charles was impressive, and Peter Williamson, Jennifer Fitzery, Billy Horn, Rich McGrath and Bob Grabowski enlivened the secondary roles of comic rustics and servants.

I can't leave out Mary Ramsey. She played the fiddle and sang her own enchanting music (to Goldsmith's lyrics). It made for delightful transitions between scenes, and at times, often with other musicians, the music was cleverly integrated into the action.

Director Fortunato Pezzimenti was no doubt responsible for such clever integration. The whole production was ingeniously devised. It followed a kind of purposeful wobbly keel that made it a wondrous comic thing to watch. It had both whacked-out farce and the more subtle humor of misplaced word and askew expression. Go to it. To borrow Mrs. Hardcastle's phraseology, this is not just "old-fashioned trumpery." It's vivid, living comedy.