Despite its wordiness, near-overwhelming continuous action, dated class-consciousness and obscure political references, the Naval Academy Masqueraders' production of Hannah Cowley's The Belle's Stratagem provided exciting theater over the past two weekends at Mahan Hall.
Rendering the play's shortcomings insignificant, director Christy Stanlake and Richard Montgomery, the set and costume designer, created a production to delight all the senses. Stanlake's ebullience and vision were reflected in the brilliance of Montgomery's fanciful birdcagelike set and colorful costumes.
Cowley's 18th-century comedy is centered on the impending arranged marriage of a young couple - Letitia Hardy and Doricourt. When they meet, the prospective groom has enough misgivings to try to get the engagement annulled, but the bride is enchanted with her fiance and develops a "stratagem" to change his mind. Satirizing fashionable society, a subplot explores a married couple's different attitudes toward gaining social acceptance.
With Cowley's comedy, Stanlake offered the audience a rarely performed theatrical work that challenged the quickness of their wit, while dazzling their senses. Also a challenge to the cast, much of the dialogue required skilled delivery, expert timing and intense concentration.
In Act 2, the game-playing reached its peak in a deliciously extravagant masquerade ball that offered nearly contemporary elements.
Action proceeded at a dizzying pace under Stanlake's direction. She used every aspect of the set to reinforce the element of moving forward from the 18th century to this era.
Contemporary elements included the heroine's Scheherazade-like figure-revealing costume, female guests' bare backs adorned with tattoos and bare-chested men sporting rock-starlike tattoos.
Montgomery's innovative staging included another rock show element in the catwalk that made the actors accessible to the audience in personal revelations and exchanges.
Stratagem provided a delightful evening that illustrated how the Stanlake-Montgomery team is reaching theatrical heights that might well bring the Naval Academy Masqueraders a reputation for theater excellence that extends outside the yard.
Contributing to the magic was the choreography of Rachel Blok and the lighting of Pat Dunn, along with Barry Talley's fascinating music, which enlivened the masquerade ball. The cast of 20 students and faculty brought enormous energy and a sense of fun to the production.
Although some cast members did not always make the material intelligible to the audience, all conveyed a joy at being part of the action, seeming at home spouting archaic language and espousing dated sexual role-playing. It seemed as if the elaborate and colorful costumes helped transform the players into 18th- century inhabitants in continual playful motion within a birdcage - complete with a seesaw, swing, ropes to fly on and a pole to slide down.
Stanlake took full advantage of the fitness of her cast, requiring them to fly through the air, execute balletlike moves and participate in breathtaking tackles that seemed downright dangerous.
Among the cast, kudos are due Cassidy Rasmussen, who was nearly perfect as heroine Letitia Hardy; Joy Dewey who as Mrs. Racket delivered her difficult dialogue flawlessly; Julie Barca, who captured the naivete and adventurousness of country girl Lady Frances; and Margie Drake for continuously sniffing loftier air.
David Smestuen was the consummate Doricourt, conveying bored restlessness, hunger for the new athleticism and summoning up a pretended insanity that became hilarious. Gavin Whittle was excellent in the demanding role of Sir George Touchwood, giving his curmudgeonly character an element of vulnerability.
With Stratagem, Stanlake has completed a planned four-year cycle of staging a classic play, an experimental work, a Shakespeare production and now a comedy. She has succeeded admirably with each, bringing a joyous celebration of the theater art to the Masqueraders that has obviously been communicated to her energetic student cast.