Which is stronger, honesty or deception, love or hate? Can one buy happiness? A spouse? Justice? Public opinion? Shall we agree that “Society isn’t maintained by its structure but by its façade”? Any Which Way Thou Wouldst Have It! written by George Rady and directed by Joan Kane is now playing at the American Theatre of Actors. This production is an expansion of an earlier 2011 collaboration at the Barrow Group Theatre, and runs two hours forty-five minutes with intermission.
We find ourselves in the world of lovely ladies and wig-wearing gentlemen. There are hecklers in the audience providing a bawdy commentary on the play. Based on references to Admiral Nelson, and the independence of the American colonies, we are in England in the late 18th Century.
The talented Dylan Sauerwald plays the clavichord throughout and we are greeted by an elegant cast of 18, dressed for and bearing the witty names we might associate with the Restoration Period (1660 onward).
The local gossipers, Lady Idle-Chat-Lover (Mary Monahan) and Frenchman abroad Monsieur Opinion-Publique (Nicholas Santasier) puzzle about which marriageable children of good families might be involved in intrigues.
If ever there was a pretentious debaucher, he would need to measure up to the adorably named Lord Harry Hackensack (portrayed by the playwright, George Rady). Lord Harry is a grown man acting like a rake in the grass. He and his skulking valet, Groppo (Daniel Lugo) have the youthful Squire Richard (Keith Ellis) chained up as their current boy toy. As this lad will be going out into the world, the rake would like to progress to another catamite or vegemite, as long as he’s new.
Most likely, their next target will be the idealistic Sir Thomas Too-Good-To-Be-True (Francesco Andolfi). Rich and unbelievably naïve, Sir Thomas has shown his desire to break with tradition (meaning loveless marriage) by reversing the surname his father have him: Too-True-To-Be-Good. The young Sir Thomas fancies the similarly inexperienced and high-maintenance Miss Gwendolyn Would -Have-It-So (Alexandra Cohler). Like the last two bonbons in the box, the young couple are fought over by connoisseurs Sir Harry and his icily beautiful Sapphic nemesis,
Madame Matriarch (Sarah Doudna). Not only do they have amazing, flowy costumes that would make a Christmas tree blush, their wigs are mountain ranges unto themselves. Miss Gwendolyn is Madame Matriarch’s ward, and the older lady would like to marry her young charge. Sir Harry wants the same from Sir Thomas, so the ancient provocateurs form a fabulous entente.
Photo Nicholas Santasier
They will find a way for the youngsters to wed, under the auspices of Captain Rodger Rough Trade (Arianna Ennis), a swashbuckling non-captain whose marriage ceremonies are not legally binding. Then they will all wait for young love to burn itself out, and swoop in and claim their “booty”. The jolly Rodger has found his own lovely wench in the modest Priscilla Promise To be Good (Randall Rodriguez). Their cross-dressed love affair is something to see. As Act I ends, the young couple ease into married life.
Photo Nicholas Santasier
After an intermission in which the audience is invited to take photos with the cast of many bodices, we see a very sad Priscilla. She is pregnant, and Captain Rodger is nowhere to be seen.
Next, Gwendolyn comes crying to Madame Matriarch, as her Sir Thomas is lacking in funds and often absent.
(Having been dis-owned by his Father Lord Thomas) Young Thomas asks Lord Harry for assistance. Lord Harry is happy to pay Young Thomas’s debts…
As long as the two men can live together in a loving relationship.
Both Young Thomas and Miss Gwendolyn, who are not motivated to spend their money, lose their youthful figures, etc. by having children, opt to live with their lecherous patrons.
Photo Nicholas Santasier
The two couples appear at a society gathering. Sir Harry has dressed the young Sir Thomas very much like himself, including white face powder. Along with gossiper Lady Idle-Chat-Lover, the elder Lord Thomas (J. Dolan Byrnes) criticizes his son, questions his parentage and even offers to re-inherit his son if he would only return to the heterosexual marriage with Miss Gwendolyn. Since that wedding was not valid (the Marriage Act of 1753 made only church weddings lawful), the elder Sir Harry believes he can bribe his son to settle down and produce an heir. As every character has their say, surprise twists ensue. I will not reveal how all of these charming characters (including Captain Rodger) are ultimately connected. As a fan of Restoration drama, I liked the way everyone chose their own personal happiness, and how this revolved around the quest for money and power.
There are a lot of symbols in this show. The spacious stage has some sexy classical sculpture and beautiful furniture. Janice Orlandi, the show’s period style movement specialist, has introduced many disdainful fan flutters, sidelong glances during a formal dance, seaman swaggers, and maidenly modesties.
Although during the Restoration there were finally women onstage, the Elizabethan tradition of having a man in a woman’s role lives on here, with great comic and sympathetic effect.
The gang of hecklers in the cast (Jason Asher, Emily Ann Banks, Trey K. Blackburn, Tommy Boyd, Sierra Paletta and Denise Turkan) help keep up the pace of the show, and give a pleasant, Mystery Science Theater 3000-type vibe to the production. George Rady’s graceful, eloquent style makes even his whips and intrigues seem OK. Daniel Lugo as the mumbling Groppo is a joy to watch. Arianna Ennis as Captain Rodger sports an ornamented moustache and an intriguing attitude. Sarah Doudna as Madame Matriarch retains her composure while appearing just about ready to come to a boil. Francesco Andolfi and Alexandra Cohler, the young couple, seem to pupate in front of us. Obviously, director Joan Kane has done an enormous amount of work to help shape this drama. Those who are considering marriage or any kind of life lived under the scrutiny of journalists will enjoy her vivid world. Gay lifestyles are fond in some work of that era (see: John WIlmot, Second Earl of Rochester) but here are given a welcome air of refinement.