THE FEIGNED COURTESANS
by Aphra Behn
Jericho Arts Centre
1675 Discovery Dr.
November 17-December 11
604-224-8007 ext. 2
The Restoration period lasted from 1660 to about 1700 and produced some of English drama’s most stylish, cynical, raunchy comedies. After the defeat of Cromwell’s Puritans, who had closed the theatres in 1642, newly restored King Charles II presided over a libertine court that patronized the re-opened theatres, which in turn provided suitably aristocratic entertainment.
In a backlash against the Puritan era, Restoration playwrights wrote comedies of manners largely concerned with sex, and with the wits, fops and pretenders who lurked about the court. The liberalized atmosphere also allowed women onto the English stage for the first time, leading to titillating scenes and obligatory “trouser parts.” Unlike in Shakespeare’s time, audiences could ogle the shapely legs of real women when female characters disguised themselves as men.
The semi-professional United Players bravely tackle the baroque plotting, demanding physical style, arcane language, substantial costumes and wigs, and large cast requirements of the genre in presenting The Feigned Courtesans (1679) by prolific and popular Aphra Behn, England’s first female professional writer. Director Sarah Rodgers and her young actors do a good job of showing us how the comic machinery works.
The plot is fairly impenetrable and repetitive, much of it involving sexual mistaken identity and groping around in the dark—further confusing because the lights are always up so we can see what’s going on. But that hardly matters because the real pleasure is in the texture of the play and its comic set pieces.
A couple of English cavaliers have come to Rome where they pursue, and are pursued by, two Italian women who have fled their town to avoid an unpleasant suitor, and who have disguised themselves as courtesans or, as the play says more bluntly, whores. A third Italian woman, also engaged, dresses as a man, codpiece and all. She’s also after one of the Englishmen—I think—although her fiancé is their good friend and she ends up back with him in the end.
As well, the English fop Sir Signal Buffoon and his companion Mr. Tickletext are there to learn from a continental “civility master” (a charlatan rip-off artist) the proper way to bow and take snuff. They too get involved with the women.
Despite hints of early feminism in the women’s complaints about enforced domesticity and their desire to avoid becoming “that dull slave called a wife,” they all pair off for marriage in the conventional romantic comedy ending.
Naomi Wright and Amber Lewis give standout performances as two of the spunky women, and Alex McMorran is a very funny Tickletext. But the uncontested star of the show is Ryan Beil, consistently hilarious as the buffoonish Sir Signal.
The production is immensely enhanced by Monique McRae’s lush period costumes and the baroque viola and harpsichord accompaniment by Pat Unruh and Monica Kim.