The play begins with the gorgeously dressed rake Loveless (Elijah Alexander) addressing the audience and explaining why and how we and he are there—in this small open air theater on a lovely California summer evening, the stage decked out in oversized 17th-century graphics, floral and starkly black and white at the same time.
Loveless’ speech is casual, witty, and conspiratorial. He calls himself by his real name, Elijah, not his character’s name. He reassures us that the whole play will not be in verse like the speech he is currently delivering, and concludes by telling us that the ultimate reason for everyone taking part in the play about to begin is ... clothes.
And he’s right, who wouldn’t want to wear those cascades of silks, fields of satin, drapes of velvet and towers of bright cottons. Even in summer.
Fashion and all the lightness, frivolity and indulgence that the word implies lie at the heart of Restoration Comedy, the new play by Amy Freed that opened at CalShakes on Saturday evening.
The play is an amalgam of two late Restoration comedies written in England in 1696, some 35 years after the death of Cromwell, the restoration of the monarchy and the reopening of the theaters that had been closed during the Puritan control of the government.
The audiences of Restoration England preferred a wilder, faster-paced theatrical event with multiple plots. The subjects tended to be sexually explicit and unsentimental; the rake—the riotous, glamorously dissipated and sexually irresistible courtier—is a Restoration character.
Actresses, rather than boys, had begun to play women’s roles, which added an erotic element for the audiences that had not existed before. Nell Gwynn, who became the most famous comedic actress of the time, also became the king’s mistress.
By 1688, however, the “Merry Monarch” Charles II had been replaced by the Protestant Mary and William and middle-class respectability had begun to concern the English, socially and legally.
In 1696 an actor named Colley Cibber wrote a play entitled Love’s Last Shift; or, The Fool in Fashion. The play—and it is this play that the first act of Freed’s two-act play is largely based on—is about a virtuous wife who manages to reform her rakish husband by seducing him into sexual, and thereby moral, submission.
Loveless has spent ten years away from London, practicing his debauchery and returns only when he believes his wife Amanda (Caralyn Kozlowski) is dead.
Having run into Loveless, a former companion and fellow rake Ned Worthy (Kaleo Griffith) tells the very much alive Amanda that her husband is also very much alive. And the two of them, Worthy and Amanda, plot how she can win back Loveless’ love.
Winding through this main story are a passel of secondary characters, chief among them Sir Novelty Fashion (Danny Scheie), a burlesque bonbon of 17th-century foppery in day-glo codpiece, trailing lace sleeves and an avalanche of blonde curls. Sir Novelty Fashion is on the trail of seduction as well, but his is the seduction of high society, born of his narcissistic need to form the eyes of the fashionable into his own gem-lashed mirrors.
Amanda is successful in her conquest of Loveless; and when she reveals her identity to him, he is overwhelmed. Her ability to be both virginal and virtuous wife as well as lustful woman of pleasure fulfills his ultimate desire for “variety.”
She convinces him that he has only one form of love left to try—fidelity. They retire to the country and all is well.
Until the second act.
The second act is based on John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse, a play that was written in response to Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift. It takes place after the retirement to the country, and was meant to answer the sentimental goodness—what Vanbrugh must have considered hypocritical and pandering to emerging social mores—of Cibber’s extremely successful play.
Vanbrugh takes on marriage, suggesting at play’s end that it serves only as a convenience, not so much to keep people chaste as to allow them to love, either in marriage or out. For ”the joys of life and love /Are in variety.”
In Freed’s second act not only does Loveless fall into his old devilish habits by pursuing and conquering the worldly wise and beautiful Berinthia (Marcia Pizzo) but Amanda herself finds her virtue assailed and her monogamous commitment to her philandering husband under attack.
Ned Worthy admits that he loves her. Just possibly she loves him as well.
In counterpoint to the marital problems of the Lovelesses, Sir Novelty Fashion and his brother Young Fashion take a large part of the play’s action to examine marriage from the standpoint of financial and social alliance.
Blending these two 17th century plays has clearly caused some problems for the writer, not the least of which was deciding what is relevant for a contemporary audience. It is not just language that is at stake here.
Does one write a 21st-century play that is placed in a 17th-century setting, rather like one might place it in the Ukraine or Bali, an exotically different cultural milieu that is nonetheless impinged upon by the global culture?
Or does one simply take the play and translate it into contemporary language, leaving in the social arguments whether or not they are relevant or politically correct to the modern mind?
Freed has opted for the former. Many of the intricacies of the original play, especially The Relapse, were dropped. All the considerable verbal philosophizing that goes on between characters about marriage and about love is gone. The ever-present gender-specific determinations about what man would do versus what woman can do are gone.
Even though much of the moral fascination of the original plays has been replaced with a sunny but dubious variety-is-the-essence-and-spice-of-life philosophy, Restoration Comedy is a lot of fun. It’s excellently acted and produced, and makes for a frothy and enjoyable summer evening’s entertainment.
CalShakes’ Restoration Comedy plays at 8 p.m. through July 30 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. $15-$57. 548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org. Nightly Grove Talks (7:15 p.m.) by members of the artistic staff provide insight into the production.