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The program notes for The Beaux' Stratagem at the Hilberry describe the show as "a naughty farce that titillates without being vulgar," and this is true enough. As a late entry into the period of Restoration comedy, the more ribald and consequence-free plots of its predecessors give way to undercurrents of morality and honor. Put another way, as plays concerning hidden identities and highway robbery go, this one is awfully nice.

Originally written by George Farquhar, the version staged here is an adaptation begun by Thornton Wilder and later completed by Ken Ludwig, but the story remains essentially the same. The beaux in question are Aimwell (Christopher R. Ellis) and Archer (Jordan Whalen), who have a plan to supplement their dwindling funds: One of them will guile a rich woman into marrying him, and they will share the reward. Alternating who plays the gentleman and who plays the servant in their travels through England, they arrive in the country town of Lichfield. There, they both fall immediately in love and also attempt to thwart the town's criminal element; by the end, the bad guys are punished, everyone else is paired off happily, and fortunes are secured.

The play features a stable of supporting characters, including the love interests Cherry (Sara Hymes), Kate (Loreli Sturm), and Dorinda (Christina Flynn), all women unafraid to fend for themselves and clear-headed about romance (in theory, at least). They have a headstrong role model in godmother/mother-in-law/mother Lady Bountiful (Samantha L. Rosentrater), the local quack and bloodletter, who's as commanding a presence as she is tone deaf to her patients' needs. Her two children are the aforementioned Dorinda and the useless Sullen (Erman Jones) — simultaneously a lousy husband to Kate and a show-hijacking hilarious alcoholic buffoon. Rivaling Jones in his histrionics is the smaller role of the parson Foigard, played with calculated French superiority by Dave Toomey. The unsavory element is headed by crooked innkeeper Boniface (Brian P. Sage) and the repellent reverend Gloss (Alan Ball), questionably competent at their legitimate professions and full of palatable immorality. Directed by Anthony B. Schmitt, the performances are distinctive and amusing across the board, and the play's two-plus hours move by at a swift clip.

Among the numerous grins and chuckles the production evokes, one of the biggest laughs arose from the sheer pomp of the set changes. Designer Pegi Marshall-Amundsen uses a single set to stand in for two locations and peppers in a handful of clever details to distinguish the inn from Lady Bountiful's home; these change-overs are presented with such flourish and emphasis (with an assist by lighting and sound designers Jason Pratt and Jon Weaver, respectively), they become a highlight in their own right. Costumes by Christa Koerner are richly detailed and bright, although the intricacies of the dress makes the script's comparison of city versus country people challenging for a modern viewer to parse — after all, both were far better appointed than I was. Competent fight choreography by Michael Brian Ogden is most notable for its inclusion of female characters, and dances by Nira Pullin heightened the prevailing sense of everything turning out nicely.

This is a sweet, polite kind of production whose performances and production elements are certainly impressive. Yet I was let down a bit by the lack of an extra something that made other Hilberry shows from this season memorable — out-and-out bawdiness that made me laugh out loud, or ethical puzzles, or even much suspense. Despite the play's frankly negative commentary on marriage — both as an institution and in the form of Sullen and Kate's oft-maligned union — this world seems too good and kind to allow anything really bad to befall its inhabitants. With a pair of protagonists who pay lip service to fraud, but never stray from the right thing to do, audiences at The Beaux' Stratagem are likely to be as confident as the characters seem to be that the good will have their reward by play's end.


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