My father turned me on to British comedy at a young age. He first showed me “Wallace and Gromit,” “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and, of course, “Mr. Bean.” After branching out to other material such as “The Black Adder,” “Spaced” and Shakespeare’s comedies, I discovered British comedy follows a very specific formula, placing an emphasis on deadpan delivery, visual gags and comedic timing. This British style makes Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer” an example of comedy at its finest.
The play, a student production by UCSB Theatre and Dance, revolves around the Hardcastle family, an upper middle-class family from a small town in the English countryside. The ornery master of the family, Mr. Hardcastle (Robert Torres), invites his friend’s son, Marlow (Merlin Huff), to his home as a suitor for his daughter, Kate (Tarah Pollack). Hardcastle’s foolish son, Tony (Dylan Hale), plays a prank on the gullible Marlow by sending him to Hardcastle’s home under the impression he is heading toward an inn. This joke, which unfolds over the course of the play, demonstrates Goldsmith’s mastery of comedic structure.
“She Stoops” has all of the makings of a traditional British comedy: the foolish trickster, the fashionably silly elderly woman and a respectable London gentleman placed in an embarrassing situation. It even follows the three unities of drama in that it maintains a consistent action, place and timeframe throughout.
Unfortunately, it is this attention to formula that makes “She Stoops to Conquer” difficult to distinguish from the rest of the pack in British comedy. Other plays such as “Twelfth Night” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” follow similar plots with similar characters. “She Stoops” does little to build upon its familiar structure, making it a prime example of textbook British theatre. Many viewers will not notice this familiarity, nor will they understand much of the witty humor that permeates the play. It is a shame the people who will most appreciate “She Stoops to Conquer” will also see its mediocrity.
As an example of British comedy, “She Stoops” is, without a doubt, funny. Hale handles the beloved character of Tony Lumpkin brilliantly, displaying immense skill in physical comedy and artfully wearing the character’s stupidity on his sleeve. As Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle, Torres and Foltz play off of each other with the hilarious, unfathomable pretense of a wealthy, aging British couple. Though they rarely step out of the background, the Hardcastle servants (Nicole Abramson, Ashley Hunter, Patrick Arter and Jak Watson) provide some of the play’s funniest moments as they poke fun at their masters and assure the more confused members of the audience that what they are watching is a comedy. The standout performance, however, is that of Merlin Huff as Marlow. Merlin’s ability to jump between the pompous, cheeky rogue Marlow is around female servants and men, and the stammering, neurotic fool he is around women of caliber displays his versatility as an actor.
The incredible production value with which director Simon Williams imbues “She Stoops to Conquer” enhances these characterizations. The lighting and sound design take full advantage of the Hatlen Theater and immerses the audience in the beautifully constructed 18th century-style set.
The ale house and Hardcastle dining room scenes — with many players interacting off to the side and behind each other’s backs — demonstrate Williams’ ability as a seasoned director. He paces the play well, keeping the actors on their feet and always giving the audience something interesting to see onstage. He knows what “She Stoops to Conquer” is supposed to look like and effectively captures its familiar British essence. However, it’s the simultaneous satire and showmanship of American college students playing pretentious British aristocrats that help the play truly conquer.