Nov. 16 2011 12:00 AM

Sugar-sweet ‘Stratagem’ is zestfully played, but the fun goes on too long


Michigan State University’s Department
of Theatre’s production of “The Beaux’ Stratagem” is a sweet comedy of
errors that reminds one of Brach’s Neapolitan Sundaes candies found in
the bulk candy bins. Those colorful coconut-covered chewy candies look
and taste good at first, but after a while your taste buds have had
enough sugar and just want some meat.

The titular two beaux are
down-on-their-luck gentlemen who have contrived a plan to play master
and servant, traveling about the country and wooing rich maidens. The
plan quickly goes awry as the men stop at in inn full of thieves and
cons. Few fall for their charade, and love complicates matters more.
Stories ravel and unravel in the complex plot.

The play is pure eye candy. The set,
designed by Sarah Pearline, is one of the best ever created for the
Arena Theatre. Pearline takes full advantage of the small space, using
just a few versatile set pieces that the characters move in a
well-choreographed manner. In this way, little time is wasted in making
scene transitions.

The already attractive cast is wrapped
in Eric Franzen’s sumptuous costumes, topped with period wigs, courtesy
of Heather Fleming. The only shortcoming in the visual presentation is
the landlord Boniface’s balding cap, which doesn’t quite blend in with
actor Steven Mallory’s natural skin tone. This is only a slight
distraction: Mallory’s acting overshadows this minor flaw.

Audiences that have difficulty
understanding Shakespeare’s romantic comedies will find this play much
more accessible. Adapted by Thornton Wilder and Ken Ludwig, this
version of George Farquhar’s 1707 play bridges the gap between the
Bard’s language and our own.  

Still, the shortcomings of the genre
persist. The biggest is that the plot is overly complicated, with
multiple characters planning multiple machinations, often with unclear
motivation. With the addition of minor characters and subplots that
exist to make social commentary, the play clocks in at over two hours.  

Fortunately, the cast is solid. Wes
Haskell is a delight as Archer, who is quite the ladies man. He first
woos Cherry (Andrea Miller), the landlord’s daughter. Their flirtations
are spirited and fun.

Archer has more of a challenge with Kate (Caitlyn
Knisely), the wife of the drunken country squire Sullen. Stuck in a
loveless marriage, Kate falls easily for Archer’s mannered charms.
Still, as a true lady she resists his advances while married. Knisely
plays the trapped wife well, lashing out at her mother-in-law and
husband with such dignity and class that they often don’t realize that
she is insulting them.

Edward O’Ryan turns in another fine
performance as highwayman/preacher Gloss. O’Ryan imbues this man of
dubious character with such complexity that the audience feels for him
when Cherry rebuffs his advances.

In this season of sex scandals, “The
Beaux’ Stratagem” is a nice option for wiling away a few hours. While
bordering on cloying, its goofy sweetness assures us that all’s well that ends well.

’The Beaux’ Stratagem’

Michigan State University Theater

Auditorium Arena Theatre

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17; 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18, and Saturday, Nov. 19; 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20

$13; $10 for students