Despite the title, "She Stoops to Conquer," you might come away from Center Stage's frolicsome production thinking you've seen "Tony Lumpkin's Rise to Riches."
Flamboyantly played by Jefferson Mays under Irene Lewis' lively direction, Lumpkin may be only the half-brother of the play's title character, but he sets the mischievous comedy in motion. With his hair in dreadlocks and his rude, rock-'n'-roll manner a cross between Rod Stewart and David Bowie, Mays' Lumpkin exemplifies the anarchic spirit of Oliver Goldsmith's 18th century play, in which the world is topsy-turvy.
The chaos begins when Lumpkin deliberately misleads a pair of London gentlemen into believing a country estate is actually an inn (a trick Mays plays by conveying the directions to the place in a manner that resembles a game of three-card monte). The gentlemen, Charles Marlow and George Hastings, have traveled to the country so Marlow can meet Kate Hardcastle, the young lady his father wants him to marry.
It's a trip Marlow dreads since he's reduced to a shy, stammering fool in the company of women of refinement -- although he's a bold Lothario with lower-class women. Discovering this, along with the fact that Marlow believes her father's house to be an inn, crafty Kate decides to capture his heart by making him think she's a mere barmaid.
Kate is one of two strong-willed, take-charge female characters in Goldsmith's play; the other is her cousin, Constance Neville. As played by Carrie Preston and Anne Louise Zachry, Kate and Constance are a sprightly duo. (Their irreverence is reinforced by Candice Donnelly's comic costumes, which blend period finery with 1970s swank.) Preston, in particular, makes Kate the type of ingenious, likable heroine you can't help but root for.
Indeed, Kate is the play's true protagonist, so the focus on Lumpkin poses a bit of a problem. It can't help but steal some limelight from the central plot of Kate's scheme to win Marlow's love.
The imbalance is accentuated by Reese Madigan's interpretation of Marlow. That character is portrayed as the lackluster foil for the rest of the over-the-top characters. Whether he's stuttering through an interview with prim-and-proper Kate or propositioning her when he thinks she's a serving wench, Madigan is nearly devoid of color. Donnelly even dresses him in gray.
In contrast, Mays' Lumpkin has the gleeful unpredictability of a spoiled child crossed with an unhousebroken puppy. He doesn't quite chew the scenery, but at one point he does, literally, chew some fabric.
The pell-mell quality that Lumpkin represents is also reflected in John M. Conklin's set design, in which two diamond-shaped sections of the Hardcastle home are cut away to reveal obliquely angled trees. Inside and outside are all mixed up in this household. The farmhands double as servants, and you half expect a sheep or pig to wander in at any minute.
This perpetual disordered state gives ample license for the humorous mixed metaphors in Donnelly's costumes (Hastings' britches, for example, are cut-off blue jeans), as well as the blend of musical styles in Mark Bennett's incidental score (from rock to Beethoven) and Willie Rosario's wide-ranging choreography, which adds an extra dash of zaniness between scenes.
Even allowing for the added attention to Mays' character, the other roles are buoyantly portrayed. Standouts among the supporting players include Laurence O'Dwyer as Kate's doting, old-fashioned father and Patricia O'Connell as his silly, vain wife.
One of Lewis' strengths as a director is her willingness to take chances with interpretations of classic texts. Her slant on "She Stoops" may skew the emphasis somewhat, but it's not only in keeping with the play's wild-and-crazy spirit, it's just plain fun.
`She Stoops to Conquer'
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays; 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays. Through Nov. 5.