THE WAY OF THE WORLD
Of the many theatre companies in and around Vancouver whose work I watch on a regular basis, only one manages consistently to overachieve --and that is United Players. They have their own theatre, the only one west of Granville, but the rather grandly named Jericho Arts Centre is basically an old barn. Under artistic director Andree Karas they produce a season of five plays that is regularly among the most challenging and adventurous in town. As a non-Equity company, they stand somewhere between community theatre and professional, employing mostly emerging artists, recently graduated students, and older actors for whom the theatre is hobby or avocation rather than profession. They judiciously use what budgets they have to contract professional directors and one or two Equity actors to anchor their shows, and their designers usually manage pretty decent production values. In 2009-10 United Players celebrates its 50th season.
All this is by way of preface to The Way of the World, William Congreve’s sparkling—and supremely difficult—English comedy of manners from 1700. I can’t recall another production of the play in the 37 years I’ve been in Vancouver. Although it’s regularly taught in universities, university theatres don’t do this play: it’s much too challenging. The big companies that could afford to do it shy away from such material. Although the Arts Club produced the similar but less scary School for Scandal a few years ago, that was an exception. The Playhouse under Glynis Leyshon was so wary of this kind of show that it mandated no plays pre-1950; and this season under Max Reimer does not reach back more than 100 years. So, naturally, United Players has tackled it.
Adam Henderson directs a cast of 14 which rises effectively to the challenge, though only two have Equity asterisks next to their names. Jenny Lang’s elaborate period costumes and Stacey Butterworth’s outrageous curled wigs create an authentically baroque Restoration look, as do the versatile painted screens that comprise Simon Webb’s set. Despite the archaic language and sometimes incomprehensible plot, the show is always engaging and almost always entertaining. Henderson has effected a minor miracle.
The characters in this genre of play are almost humours types, as their names suggest: Fainall, Witwoud, Petulant, Lady Wishfor[i]t. They are urban upper-class twits, with the exception of the servants and Sir Wilful Witwoud (David Campbell), a rude-mannered country squire. When he proposes to the ultra-sophisticated Millimant (a deliriously lovely Joey Bothwell), the play’s heroine, that they go walking, she replies, “I nauseate walking.” She’d much rather spend the time having her maid curl her hair with paper. But only poetry will do, she insists; prose doesn’t curl the hair.
She and her friends live for fashion, card-games, visits, gossip, wit, and sexual intrigue. Wit is a special virtue in this society. The characters have battles of wits, speak in witticisms, disparage people who are witless or pretend to wit they don’t have. Language is a weapon (“one’s cruelty is one’s power,” says Millimant), and the actors have to be able to toss off witty lines with an elegance and clarity—and in English accents—that are not natural to Canadians trained in naturalism. So too must they wear their elaborate costumes, carry themselves elegantly, and manage a large vocabulary of formal gestures, all foreign to us. That most of these actors manage this successfully most of the time is astonishing.
One of the centres of the play—and certainly the centre of this production—is Lady Wishfort: mother of Mrs. Fainall (Missy Cross), who is the lover of our hero Mirabell (Patrick Spencer) and whose villainous husband Fainall (Rob Hughes) is the lover of equally villainous Mrs. Marwood (Miranda Duffy), Lady Wishfort’s confidante. Lady W is also Mirabell’s aunt, and controls both the fortune many of the characters seek and the equally much sought-after hand of Mirabell. Lady W is the classic horny “old” woman of 55, a comic character whose face-painting, vanity, lust, and lack of self-awareness make her an easy foil for Mirabell’s elaborate plot—dressing up his servant Waitwell (Victor Vasuta) as “Sir Rowland” to woo her—and Mrs. Marwood’s intrigues. Stratford veteran Gwynyth Walsh is one the most accomplished actors in Vancouver at this style, and it’s easily worth the price of admission just to watch and listen to her modulate her voice and master the subtleties of language and gesture. Her Lady W is ridiculous and very, very funny but also manages to retain an inherent dignity. My only criticism is that Walsh is much too attractive, even under the thick walls of Lady Wishfort’s white face-paint, to be the butt of so many of the play’s misogynous jokes.
The other centre is Mirabell, a nasty, feckless hero, who successfully woos Millimant in the end—although she is the one who sets the terms under which she’ll agree to marry: a proto-feminist list of conditions that will allow her, in her own wonderful words, to “dwindle into a wife.” Hughes, unfortunately, is not quite able to manage the style. He’s stiff and solemn where he needs to be relaxed and comfortably in control.
Some of the other men carry off the style much better: Hughes’ Fainall and especially Seth Little’s petulant Petulant. The women are more consistently good: Duffy’s Mrs. Marwood, Cross’ Mrs. Fainall, and Susan Coodin’s servant-woman Foible all manage to hold their own with Bothwell's adorable Millimant and Walsh’s superb Lady Wishfort.
Don’t miss the opportunity to see this wonderful play in this surprisingly fine production.