Another man named Pinchwife (Jeff Watkins), unconvinced that the rake is sexually out-to-pasture, endeavors to have his new bride from the country, Margery (Kaley Pharr), locked away in a room so that she never turns him into a cuckold. But Margery is far more cunning and lustful than anyone suspects.
A third plot involves Pinchwife’s headstrong sister Alithea (Amanda Lindsey McDonald), who is arranged to marry a doltish, ridiculous fop poet named Sparkish (Chris Hecke). Alithea attracts the attention of another rake named Harcourt (Sean Dale), who sets about wooing her in front of her clueless fiancé.
This leads to bawdy moments of farce, including Margery pretending to be her own brother, Harcourt pretending to be his own twin brother, clandestine letters exchanged back and forth and lots of hiding in bedrooms. There are many back-entry and misogynistic jokes, which manage to land well in spite of being tacky or shocking. In fact, there are lots of jokes, delivered with wit and speed. The best humor moment may involve Delapenha’s baffled, delayed reply to his wife’s tickle-party invitation, yet there are many funny exchanges throughout this show.
Hecke plays Sparkish’s fussy cluelessness with a particular relish. Painted, primping and preening, while dismissing every word of the insults lobbed directly at him, his performance of him is the most clownish and scene-stealing. Seriously, anyone staging “The Scarlet Pimpernel” would do well to give Hecke a callback.
Watkins is also excellent here, playing the most comparatively villainous of the characters. Pinchwife is the one most inclined to asides to the audience, reasoning out his machinations from him to prevent his wife’s cheating in front of us. The fact that his plans are consistently foiled anyway is a source of regular amusement. Watkins has to wrap his mind around a lot of rhythmic, antiquated dialogue delivered in different tones of voice, often in the middle of a scene, and he does good work with material involved.
Pharr’s performance is also strong, and the script places the audience always on Margery’s side. During letter-writing scenes and disappointments, the actress conveys a charming glee while the character pursues a romantic, sexually adventurous future. Playing Alithea, McDonald conveys an intelligence and amusing frustration as she is surrounded by idiots and buffoons in control of her future. Cole’s work on her, playing a character who runs hot and cold with Horner, is also a lot of fun.
As Horner, Lang provides a fun devilishness, acting as the audience’s confidant while the plot plays out in all its horny glory. And his protests from him over women, and many acidic, dated observations about them, serve the characterization of Horner well. Lang is clearly having fun onstage, and it’s contagious.
The ensemble is quite strong, as well. Even smaller roles get moments to shine.
The costumes by Anne Carole Butler and Clint Horne are lovely. Watkins designed the set, which is brightly colored and includes an old banner map of London. It’s functional, if not particularly remarkable.
The old English language of this script is probably a beast for a cast to decipher and memorize, even at a place such as the Shakespeare Tavern, so the direction by John Ammerman deserves praise. In this staging, the relationships make sense, the jokes land and the timing works. Much of this could’ve gone sideways. Instead, it’s a solid, sexed-up show.
“The Country Wife”
Through May 1. $15-$44. Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, 499 Peachtree St. NE Atlanta. 404-874-5299, shakespearetavern.com.
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