One of the few silver linings of this past year has been online access to “live” theater from far-flung places. There was, early on, the stunning adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull by the Aukland Theatre Company in New Zealand (still streaming, watch it here); then, over the summer, the weekly releases of archived performances from the National Theatre in London and the regular “drops” from Joshua Gelb of his experiments in Theatre in Quarantine; on top of that, there has been livestreamed and prerecorded work from all over the US, some of it – like the Fake Friends production of Circle Jerk – aiming to chart new aesthetic territory in our brave new world of socially distanced performance.
But nothing to date has tickled my nerdy heart quite like Red Bull Theater in New York, which, in the last month, has livestreamed the works of two of my favorite female writers from the eighteenth century (and yes, dear Reader, I have favorite writers from the eighteenth century, because that’s the kind of nerd I am): The Woman Hater by Fanny Burney, and, this week, The Belle’s Stratagem by Hannah Cowley.
Red Bull Theater’s mission is to “bring rarely seen classic plays to dynamic new life for contemporary audiences” – they are accomplishing that goal in the present moment through a series of “Live Benefit Readings” that engage terrific US actors from around the country to lift little-known plays off the page and into the imagination. I’m no huge fan of Zoom readings, but the reading of The Woman Hater was one of the best I’ve seen in the last year. Under director Everett Quinton’s guidance, the cast infused the reading with energy and wit, making specific and inspired character choices that elevated Burney’s satirically comic dialogue into heights of absurdity. One of the things you have to love about Burney’s writing is that it offers plum comic roles for female actors: a highlight of the show was Veanne Cox’s hilarious portrayal of the addled female savante Lady Smatter, whose brain is so crammed with ideas lifted from other people’s writing that she can’t keep anything straight, and whose hats kept overtopping themselves in an echo of her thought patterns (delightful costuming was by Sara Jean Tosetti). Jenne Vath and Cherie Corinne Rice also brought their comic talents to multiple roles each in the show. Visual designer David M. Barber enlivened the familiar “Zoom” format by devising a way to superimpose the actors’ boxes onto a series of unified “scenic design” backgrounds, so that they appeared to be in the same visual space (and at times even seemed to be talking to each other rather than at their cameras). While I’ve been a Fanny Burney fan for several decades, this play was new to me, and it was a delight to be introduced to it by such a fine ensemble of artists. Unfortunately, it only streamed for a week at the end of January, and has now “disappeared.”
Still available – for just two more days! – is the Red Bull Benefit Reading of Hannah Cowley’s 1790 play The Belle’s Stratagem (in an adaptation by Davis McCallum). This is a play I’m deeply familiar with – I’ve researched it, written about it, and taught it in class for many years – but until now I’ve never heard it read or seen it produced. The play tells the story of a young heiress, Letitia Hardy (Lilli Cooper), who has been betrothed since childhood to the rakish Doricourt (Santino Fontana). When they first meet again as adults, she senses his indifference, and comes up with a complicated scheme to win his heart before they are married. Where the production of The Woman Hater embraced the original’s positioning in eighteenth-century England, here director Gaye Taylor Upchurch leans into a modernizing impulse: the characters wear modern dress, the accents are American and quite colloquial, the mannerisms are fully of the here and now – there’s even the occasional anachronistic word thrown in to the dialogue. This juxtaposition of old and new gives the play a welcome freshness and accessibility, and also brings additional moments of irony and humor to the story – while I’d hardly suggest that Cowley’s plot is one that has strong resonances with today, the play’s depiction of women’s limited agency, its positioning of gender as a coerced performance, and its portrayal of a world in which women are generally at the mercy of patriarchal structures of power continue to resonate and justify the modern approach (#metoo, anyone?).
As with The Woman Hater, unified “backdrops” help lend the illusion that the actors (who are Zooming in from all over the country) are occupying the same space. In addition to the charismatic Fontana and Cooper, there are excellent performances by Chauncy Thomas playing the jealous husband Sir George Touchwood, Heather Alicia Simms as the worldly Mrs. Racket, and Mark Bedard as the predatory Courtall. A recording of the livestream is available until 7 pm on Friday, February 26 – I’ve waited years for a production of this play to be in my vicinity, so if protofeminist theater from the eighteenth century is your jam (and really, Dear Reader, why wouldn’t it be?) take advantage of this opportunity to see it brought to life by a fine ensemble of actors.