It has always been great fun to see the tables turned, and especially fun to see male braggadocio shown up for its lack of real substance. It also helps if you have a bored woman in the audience, watching yet another trivial male-concocted farce, saying “C’mon, I can write better than that!”—and then proving it.
This is what happened when Hannah Cowley, after yet another boring night on the London theater scene, launched her career in the 1780s as a playwright. Her shows were all hits, she made a tidy bundle in royalties—and as Greenbelt Arts Center’s Rude Mechanicals have shown with their current production of Cowley’s classic The Belle’s Stratagem, she continues to skewer the lesser sex, no matter the change in the times.
Director Jeff Poretsky has set the mayhem in the Swinging ’60s, with witty pre-show and intermission tunes featuring (naturally) girl-band covers of Beatles songs. Christopher Fominaya, meanwhile, offers live renditions of Simon & Garfunkel hits from his perch on the off-stage piano. The stage envisions a typical TV sitcom studio, with pastel walls, head-set-wearing studio hands rushing around, with hip prints for the wall art (interchangeable, depending on whose pad you’re crashing in this time), and Assistant Director Liana Olear giving the countdown before each scene goes “live.
Leading this solid cast are Wes Dennis and Erin Nealer as the less-than-happily-betrothed couple of Doricourt and Letitia. Based on the wildly improbable notion that it helps if one is actually attracted to one’s spouse prior to marriage, The Belle’s Stratagem follows these two around Manhattan as they try to figure out whether they’re really a good match after all. A masked ball decides everything, and both Dennis and Nealer have a lot of fun playing tricks on each other, now playing the country hick, now the seductive vamp, now the madman—you get the picture—and chewing the scenery shamelessly whenever they know they’re being watched.
No sitcom set in The City would be complete without a cast of instantly recognizable urban types, with the terminally hip represented to a “T” by Megan Parlett as ringleader Miss Racket, with her crew of hangers-on (Devin Thrasher as Miss Kitty Ogle, and Laurel Miller-Sims as Lady Frances). Then you have the other camp—emphasis on camp—with the foppish Paul Brinkley in the role of Flutter, who burns the eyes with his plaid one scene, then re-enters disguised as Bob Denver’s Gilligan for a masquerade ball. There are other, more sober characters of course—some of them actually males of the species. Nathan Rosen, as Letitia’s father Mr. Hardy, proves that her ingenuity and penchant for trickery don’t fall far from the tree, while Peter Eichman’s Sir George offers a touching portrayal of a true mensch, who’s really worried that his wife might abandon him to the pleasures of the high life with the ladies.
Among other fun things to do at the Greenbelt Art Center, check out the Brady Bunch–style lobby display of all the characters, each with their own moniker (“The Cad,” “The Alpha,” etc.), duplicated in your program so you can keep track of which character is about to make a complete fool of themselves in the next scene. It’s a great night out, and should whet appetites for the Rude Mechanicals’ next show, George Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem (the very play that inspired Cowley’s mockery, and great fun in its own right). This next classic will be hitting the boards in just a month’s time; make your plans now!
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission.
The Belle’s Stratagem played from February 3 to 11, 2023, presented by the Rude Mechanicals at Greenbelt Arts Center, 123 Centerway, Greenbelt, MD.
For tickets to future productions at Greenbelt Arts Center, call (301) 317-7964 or go online.
COVID Safety: Greenbelt Arts Center requires all audience members to wear a mask over nose and mouth during their entire time in the facility. Click here to read the venue’s current COVID-19 Policy.