Unlimited free alcoholic punch is included in the price of admission at the Flea’s latest immersive theatrical event, Restoration Comedy; it’s part of the reason why the overall experience of the play is so buoyant and engrossing, and I don’t mean that as an insult in the slightest — just that you’ll be abuzz, either from liquor, theatrical debauchery, or both. Part “baroque musicale” (with text by Amy Freed and musical interludes in the form of choreographed dances to Scissor Sisters songs) and part concert-cum-social event, Restoration Comedy seeks to blend the bawdy delights of olde English comedy with the music of the twenty-aughts and -teens with mostly electrifying results.
Providing the substantive centerpiece of the evening, playwright Freed has crafted a new restoration comedy from bits of little-known existing ones, namely Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift and John Vanbrugh’s sequel to that play, The Relapse. Freed’s new conflagration concerns the age-old question of whether monogamy is truly the pinnacle of marriage and relationships in general. The first act focuses on a promiscuous rabble-rouser named Loveless (James Fouhey), whose wife Amanda (Allison Buck) presumes him dead. Having been informed that her husband is still alive, the prudish Amanda seeks to seduce her husband back into her arms through debauchery (and boy does the play ultimately get debauched). Though their marriage is resolved at the end of act one, it’s set astir by jealousy in the second act as Loveless and Amanda swap partners with a new set of love interests.
Besides for Loveless, the play also features a subplot concerning Sir Novelty Fashion (a.k.a. Lord Foppington, played by Stephen Stout), a greedy, flamboyant man about town who’s engaged to marry a homely virgin (Bonnie Milligan, hilariously unvirginal and in fine voice) for her money and is ultimately outsmarted by his younger gay brother. Freed’s play draws its plot elements heavily from its source material but shapes from her inspiration an original piece of work that’s frothy and fun, like the best restoration comedies, even if its second act drags the proceedings out a bit in the service of plot.
Transforming Freed’s play into an event, director Ed Iskandar Sylvanus has staged the play in a catwalk-style environment, with a stage running through a seating area split between two sides. At one end of the main playing space are several more traditionally-configured rows of seats as well. When entering the space, the cast members greet the audience, introduce themselves, and serve delicious specialty punch. The cast is friendly almost to a fault (probably about five or six cast members had approached me by the start of the show); the overall effect is a welcoming one since the initial experience of meeting and greeting the cast creates a sense of affinity for the players that carries over into the production as a whole.
Throughout, interspersed with Freed’s scenes, choreographer Will Taylor has choreographed dance segments to Scissor Sisters songs (most notably “Let’s Have a Kiki”), piggybacking on the band’s twenty-first century sexy glam edge to illustrate its age-old themes.
Midway through the play, there’s an extended break, during which the audience are served finger foods (also included in the price of admission) and drinks are refreshed. Many of the cast members perform songs cabaret-style (with panache, I might add!) a
As Loveless, James Fouhey is possessing of a sly charm reminiscent of Tim Curry, and Allison Buck’s Amanda vacillates well between the polar extremes of frigidity and ravenousness. Making perhaps the most splashy entrance is Stephen Stout, who lisps and struts his way through the proceedings with great flair; it’s difficult to take one’s eyes off him while he’s on stage, particularly in his over-the-top costumes by Loren Shaw, whose work is detailed and interesting across the board — a mixture of period realness and gold lame booty shorts.
In highlighting the play’s lead actors, one necessarily excludes a whole host of others worth mention. The cast is so committed to the cause that even those without many lines have their moments to be noticed, even those whose main role is as backup dancers (some of them with detachable butt-flaps). Restoration Comedy ultimately begs to be experienced live rather than merely read about. At nearly three and a half hours, it represents quite a commitment to purchase a ticket and take the plunge, but the value of the free drinks alone just about pays for the ticket alone. The revelry on hand is so fresh and fun that even sober theatergoers won’t be able to help smiling throughout. Restoration Comedy is, if not the best-written play, the most original and energetic theatrical experience I’ve had this season, and comes wholly recommended.