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Restoration-era wit gets a contemporary reading in theater festival

L.A. Cicero Restoration Comedy

Cutter and draper Heather Patterson, left, works with actor Marty Pistone and costume designer Connie Strayer to fit the costume for Pistone’s character in the upcoming production Restoration Comedy.

BY BARBARA PALMER

When playwright Amy Freed, an artist-in-residence in the Drama Department, introduced students to the witty, topical and frankly sexy Restoration-era comedies of the 17th-century playwright John Vanbrugh, they were quick to come up with a contemporary analogue. "They all said, 'This is just like Sex and the City,'" Freed recalled last week during a break from rehearsals of her Vanbrugh-inspired work, Restoration Comedy. Freed is directing the play, her newest, as the centerpiece of Stanford Summer Theater's 2006 Festival, "Wicked Wit: Rakes and Rebellion in the Restoration."

Freed said she happened upon Vanbrugh's work in a period anthology and was struck—and delighted—by the "fresh, sexy and humane" manner in which the 17th-century playwright wrote about such topics as sexual addiction and incompatible sexual temperaments. The play's refreshing honesty is representative of true Restoration-era theater, which flourished before censorship ushered in the era of the sentimental drama, she said.

While in exile during the puritanical Commonwealth era, King Charles II spent his time at the French court "going to the theater and having sex," Freed said. After being restored to the crown in 1660, the king—who was nicknamed the "Merry Monarch"—overturned the country's ban on theater and on women appearing on stage.

It was a liberated and liberating period, which Freed likened to the golden period in the late 1920s and early 1930s in American film after the introduction of sound and before Hollywood's Production Code censored film content. The actresses of the Restoration theater were "fabulous—bright, lively, skilled and sexy," Freed said. "They were huge celebrities, the J-Lo's of their day."

The satirical comedies reflected the chief domestic concerns of the upper classes: marriage and chasing money, Freed said. They can be difficult to stage, however, because they are filled with topical references that are incomprehensible to modern audiences, she said. So for Restoration Comedy, Freed kept the genre's strengths—frankness and lack of sentiment—but updated the language for modern audiences. "I tried to find a roadway to the energy of the truth of the play," she said.

She also worked to further and broaden the themes of the works by strengthening the female characters. She reinvigorates Vanbrugh's lead female character as a woman with a more complex, empowered view of the meaning of virtue, she said.

Vanbrugh was the only Restoration-era playwright that she has encountered to create an openly gay character, Freed said. "I don't know, but I think he probably was a gay man," she said. She reads his plays as a plea for sexual tolerance, a message that resonates in a time when there is backlash against gay marriage, she said.

Restoration Comedy is filled with "wonderful verbal puns" but also counters and satirizes American Puritanism, said Rush Rehm, professor of drama and of classics and festival co-director. "All sorts of bubbling things are going on under the surface."

On the surface, the play's richly ornamented satin and brocade costumes and elegantly elaborate set design reflect the "more is more" ethos of the period. "I love the period. It's very pretty," Freed said. The play also offers theatergoers an opportunity to see something that is becoming rare in a time of rising costs and shrinking arts budgets: a large cast. Restoration Comedy has 14 players, including professional actors Leith Burke, Jennifer Erdman, Jeffrey Bihr and Kay Kostopoulos and student actors. "It's really thrilling, unlike anything that Stanford Summer Theater has ever done before," Freed said.

The festival is "way beyond what we have ever attempted before, by a long shot," Rehm agreed.

In August, the festival will present Moliere's Don Juan, set in Louis XIV's France, under the direction of Ed Iskandar, festival co-director. On Monday nights through Aug. 21, the festival will present a free film series, "Licensed to Thrill," exploring Restoration wit and its underside, with post-film discussions led by Stanford faculty and Stanford Summer Theater company members. (Screenings begin at 7 p.m. in Cubberley Auditorium.) And on Aug. 5, an all-day community symposium, "The Bawdy Politic: Stages in the Restoration," will bring together scholars and artists who will put the period's theater and its ideas in their historical and cultural context.

The festival is experimenting with what publicity materials called "its own brand of theatrical debauchery" by offering admission to the plays by donation. By not requiring the purchase of tickets, festival organizers hope to reach out to audience members for whom theater-going is not a habit, Rehm said.

Restoration Comedy will be performed Thursdays through Sundays, July 27 to Aug. 13, at 8 p.m. in Pigott Theater. Don Juan will play Thursdays through Sundays, Aug. 17 to 27, at 8 p.m. in Pigott Theater. There will not be a performance on Sunday, Aug. 20. For more information or to make reservations, call 725-5838 or e-mail stanfordsummertheater@gmail.com.

Information about the film series and symposium can be found at http://summertheater.stanford.edu.