Category: Archive

Pearl stages gem

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Sean McNall is at or near the top of the heap of gifted young Irish-American actors currently working out of New York’s thespian talent pool, and just at the moment he’s making an absolute fool of himself down on St. Mark’s Place, much to the delight of the Pearl Theatre Company’s audiences.
The vehicle which allows the 29-year-old Californian to give a performance that invites comparison with the work done by comic actors ranging from Buster Keaton to Burt Lahr is a 333-year-old, virtually unknown farce, “The Gentleman dancing-Maser,” by William Wycherley, a Restoration writer best-known, if at all for “The Country Wife,” the most frequently produced of his four plays.
So unfamiliar is the play that the people at the Pearl were unable to find a trace of any previous American professional production, with the result that, as far as it’s been possible to discern, Gus Kaikkonen’s all-stops-out staging is the occasion of the work’s U.S. premiere.
“The Gentleman Dancing-Master” plays a bit like an unknown play by Moliere, which is perhaps not so surprising considering that Wycherley, born in 1640 to a distinguished Shropshire clan, was sent to live in France at about age 15, and returned to England when Charles II came to the throne in 1660, signaling the start of the Restoration, at which point, London’s theaters, which had been closed since 1642 by an Act of Parliament, were once again permitted to operate.
Wycherley wrote the play in 1672 and based it, to an extent, on “El Maestro de Danzar,” written in 1664 by the wildly prolific Spanish poet Pedro Calderon de la Barca, known to the world simply as Calderon.
In addition to the title, Wycherley is indebted to Calderon for one character, the 14-year-old heroine, Hippolita, and for the name Don Diego, by which the heroine’s father, Mr. James Formal, likes to be known when he’s assumed a Spanish identity instead of being his own British self.
The assumption of a second identity, a foreign one, is at the heart of “The Gentleman Dancing-Master,” with McNall’s character, Mr. Nathaniel Paris, who is Hippolita’s cousin, preferring to be known, after a brief trip to France, as M. De Paris.
The Pearl programme specifies the play’s randy action as taking place in 1672 London and locates it in the residence of Mr. James Formal (Don Diego) and in “The French House, an eating and drinking club.”
Susan Zeeman Rogers’ clean-limbed stage design serves the undertaking ideally, which is a good thing, since the events of the nearly three-hour production switch from the formal residence to the French House frequently.
Director Kaikkonen has facilitated the shifts from place to place on the curtainless Pearl stage by devising brief, charming musical bridges involving a musician, Ryland Blackinton, and a pair of sopranos, Mrs. Flounce (Heather Girardi) and Mrs. Flirt (Rachel Botchan) who much to the glee of the audience, spinout sprightly little numbers while the furniture is being shifted in the darkness behind them.
The remarkable McNall’s character is the nephew of the householder, Formal, and engaged to his cousin Hippolita, at least in the mind of Hippolita’s blustery father.
McNall, a walking ice cream cone in an elaborate pink and orange wig and red-and-white pantaloons of which he is obsessively proud, displays a toolbox of comic tricks and reactions equal to those of the classic stage and screen clowns of a vanished era, summoning up half-forgotten names such as Bobby Clark and Harold Lloyd.
His attachment to his blazing French trousers is intense enough that when the time arrived for him to don the black clothing of a Spanish grandee, he still manages to wear the beloved pantaloons over the proper pair.
The slight, graceful McNall, as it happens, is not playing the title role. Bradford Cover, a stalwart leading man if ever one were, has the role. He is Mr. Gerrard, Hippolita’s true love, and when he is discovered by her father during a forbidden visit, he finds himself forced to pose as a dance instructor, invited to the house to teach the girl a few modish steps.
The materials of “The Gentleman Dancing-Master,” admittedly, are not unlike those found in many another popular play of the time, but in this little-known Wycherley gem, they are deployed with such grace and such skill that it’s entirely amazing that this particular farce has lingered in deep shadow for quite this long.
Since its presumed premiere at the Duke’s Company Theatre in London’s Dorset Gardens shortly after Wycherley completed it, there have been only a few stagings, in Croydon, in Oxford, and, the only known American production, an amateur one, by the Sayrook Players at Yale University in 1979.
The Pearl Theatre Company’s standards are unfailingly high, whether the play at hand be George Kelly’s seldom-produced “Daisy Mayme,” or some familiar item from the Shakespearean canon, “King Lear,” “As You Like It,” or the forthcoming “Measure for Measure.”
A highlight of last season’s Pearl season was “Widowers’ Houses, an excellent, but puzzlingly obscure comedy by George Bernard Shaw. At the Pearl, Sean McNall turned in a brilliant performance as a well-bred young Edwardian gentleman.
A particular standout in the case of the Pearl’s “The Gentleman Dancing-Master” is the costume design by Devon Painter, who has filled the stage with a panoply of candybox items, each one of which makes a point about the character wearing it, wholly apart from being wonderful to look at on its own.
Setting aside McNall’s joke-after-joke wearing apparel, no actor on stage benefits more richly from Painter’s work than Marsha Stephanie Blake, who gives a charmingly singular performance as the 14-year-old Hippolita, a teen with a mind of her own and the wit to make it work to her advantage.
Hippolita’s adversaries, her bulky father and her bullying, semi-sadistic aunt, Mrs. Caution, are played with endless flair by, respectively Dan Daily and Robin Leslie Brown, both of them longterm Pearl participants.
Backing them up are Michele Vazquez as Prue, Hippolita’s maid, and John Livingstone Rolle as Mr. Martin, Mr. Gerrard’s loyal friend.
It may be another century before “The Gentleman Dancing-Master” receives another staging as intelligent, as sunny or as bright as the one the Pearl has given it. Among other strengths, it serves as a perfect showcase for Sean McNall, one of the most promising young actors in the American theater today.

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