Although the Admiral and I knew Staunton, Virginia where the American Shakespeare Center theater does plays in a beautifully carpentered Elizabethan theate, is 3 full hours from Alexandria, Va (west and south of us), we ventured for a second time, having seen their splendid (intelligent, evocative, moving) rendition of Massinger's Roman Actor this past spring, and for several years before that (a few years ago) their plays when they brought them to the Folger Shakespeare theater in DC.
It was worth it. The day was lovely; as last time, we found a restaurant that served us an exquisitely well-cooked meal with good wine, we stopped off at scenic places on the way there (the blue in the Blue Ridge mountains is a soft teal blue moving into turquoise), and the play a well-done rare experience, and for an 18th century person like me of genuine interest.
John O'Keefe apparently was "the most produced playwright in London" in the last part of the 18th century: He has been forgotten because his plays were highly commercial and like many in this latter part of the age, sexual experience more or less eliminated (the evangelical movement aka Victorianism begins well before 1837), real or disturbing violence kept to a minimum and from the repression of the later 1780s into the 90s, little politics of any serious questioning allowed.
Much of this went into closet dramas (remember Byron's Manfred, Cain, Wordsworth's Brothers, Shelley's Cencis); plays were read, written to be read as well as played from the Elizabethan period on as a book for sale on the shelf of American Shakespeare Theater righlty argued for Shakespeare). People read Goethe in translation (Thomson did 6 volumes of German plays in translation, a volume which includes a superior Lover's Vows and Koetze's The Stranger, a play favored by Victorian as witnessed in Thackeray's Pendennis) There was an outlet for depth of thought and feeling in reformist plays, but these are today unacceptably didactic (Holcroft's Road to Ruin) and the gothic ones (an adaptation of Radcliffe's Romance of the Forest for example) laughable. so all that survived of any value for us that is playable to modern audiences have been the familiar two by Sheridan (Rivals, School for Scandal) and Goldsmith (She Stoops to Conquer). One should also remember how it was to get a play staged, to make a living as the patent for serious plays was only given to 2 theaters and these 2 also had managements fiercely controlling the older plays they had copyrights for.
Recently a few "new" plays have been tried to add into the repertory in order to do justice to women, and some have stayed: Aphra Behn's Rover, Beaumont's Tamer Tamed (a Jacobean but Restoration in spirit), Colman and Garrick's Clandestine Marriage, and now this. It was first revived by the Royal Shakespeare Company with superb actors (like Jeremy Irons) and has crossed the Atlantic and has now been revived a couple of times in the US, usually with favorable notices.
A blown up photo from a 1998 production (a thumbnail was all I could find on the Net)
This gives you a sense of O'Keefe's story and characters:
Here's the cast and artistic team of this production:
It's enjoyable in a light way, though the audience did not seem very interested until the second act. They were a polite set, many looked like professors or people from the nearby Mary Baldwin college (still all women campus but it has co-ed courses nowadays too). There is little depth to the content of the story until the second act and then it comes from O'OKeefe's apparent intense love of Shakespeare (who he quotes and reworks for fun a lot):
All the world's a stage and all the men and women
The men are rogues and the women bussies
I'll make clear stage ...
[Just one set of lines I copied from the billboard)
O'Keefe is aware of his play as a play. He knows how shallow (light is the nice word) it is. Unfortunately for me in the first act I took up the challenge of the actors and sat on stage. They proceeded to work very hard to keep audience alive to all the complications and turns and twists of the misunderstandings, but all this pantomime was aimed centrally at the audience and I missed it. O'Keefe was getting mileage out the heroine, Lady Mary Amaranth (Sarah Fallon), as a Quaker, but not for laughter, rather for expression of virtuous egalitarian sentiments. For the second act we returned to our seats and I began to understand the characters' relationships.
Then the play seemed to come into its own, strongly alive and funny. Our hero, Rover wants to mount a production of As You LIke It, and some of the characters take parts and we get a parallel play within the play. Rover, a difficult pseudo-virtuous yet somehow (left over from the Restoriation are whiffs) rakish presence was played very effectively by John Harrell. He is now in love with Lady Mary and she with him: they convey good feeling and wit throughout. The author's (through Rover) love Shakespeare's vitality and beauty of imagery and his wit too emerges: Rover is constantly quoting "Will" and I could see there are brief allusions and imitations of Shakespeare (to Hamlet for example).. This made the play fitting for this group. Their choice of The Roman Actor had been predicated on the same emphasis: both about the theater, with the idea (much more carried through in Massinger) that life is a theater too.
Harrell as Rover has been pretending to be Harry Thunder, apparent heir to a local rich man, Sir George Thunder (James Keegan). We suddenly get this intensely melodramatic sub-story of Amelia (Alison Glenzer, who bursts upon us from nowhere) a woman who had been seduced, impregnated and abandoned years ago -- apparently in India. We learn gradually that she lost or had to give up her baby and that the blaggard was Sir George Thunder. This did not quite come off, because the play does not mean us to take this subplot seriously and yet the lines are semi-serious and certainly what happened. They went swiftly over the scenes at this point as this brought in too much burden for a comic entrance so late. Then we were supposed to be happy at last. Guess what? Rover's best friend who he has been bouncing about the world with (as an actor, in ships sailing across oceans) has been using a pseudonym; he is Harry Thunder (Patrick Midgeley), the real son of Sir George whom Rover has been impersonating. All is happily resolved when (reminding me of so many tongue-in-cheek comedies) when we discover that Rover is Sir George's long lost son and older than Harry. Rover is the real heir and naturally now Lady Mary can marry him (but she would have anyway she assures us, being this quaker).
Among the themes adumbrated beyond the abandoned foundling, deserted woman, and (weak) revolutionary American sentiments is colonialism: the male characters at least have travelled across the world. If you look at his other plays, you find these two are set around the world, bring in native peoples from other countried and show sympathy for "the common man' (The poor Soldier) . Poor man was blind in his later years.
This set of actors are a fine group and ambitious again: t this coming year mean to do Marston's The Malcontent, Heywood's Fair Maid of the West, and try for more unusual Shakespeare (Henry VI Part 3).
Years ago we see this theater group do a remarkable production of Beaumont's Knight of the Burning Pestle at the Folger Shakespeare Theater. I'll remember it forever because Izzy was there, around 8 or so, and the actor playing the Knight chose her as "Susan" whom he loved. She was young enough to become frightened he was going to abduct her and ducked under the chairs and fled around the feet of the patrons in the theater. It was funny and touching. She remembered that actor for a long time after -- had a sort of crush on him.
And yes they're the company who "do it with the lights on."
This is one Austen could have seen.