A little while ago I found a video of some members of The Flea Theater's Restoration Comedy lip-synching to the Scissor Sisters dance hit "Let's Have a Kiki." A bunch of fabulously costumed women and men in dresses singing to a dance anthem? Yes, please. My previous history with The Flea's commitment to the various periods and themes of their plays already had me looking forward to Restoration Comedy, but now I was even more excited. I'm happy to say that The Bats and the artistic personnel at The Flea surpassed my high expectations.
I'm willing to bet that most people don't have the connotations I do when they hear the term "restoration comedy," so here's a brief (theater) history lesson. When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans overthrew the monarchy and ruled during the period in England known as the Interregnum, which lasted from 1649-1660, they closed down all of the public theaters. After the monarchy was restored, and the theaters reopened, the plays performed tended to be a celebration of the decadence and lasciviousness that made the Puritans want to close the theaters in the first place (this is an oversimplification, but you get the point). Comedies produced during this period are known as, you guessed it: "restoration comedies."
So we come to Amy Freed's play, which combines two such plays, Colley Cibber's Love's Last Shift and John Vanbrugh's sequel The Relapse. Surrounding these two works, Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar has created a space that is a modern adaptation of the Restoration spirit, complete with cocktails, music, burlesque interludes, and more. This is what The Flea does best, in my opinion. The full commitment to the period or theme of a show is so contagious from performers to playing space that one can't help but get into the spirit of things.
I say the spirit because this production seems to me to strike a balance between period accuracy and contemporary connection, which is something I applaud. The actors converse with the audience members, some of the costumes are out in the lobby, and there is a general sense of play with the constructs surrounding a theater outing that is a perfect conduit between the period style and current downtown theater aesthetics. This is visible in both the acting style and the design, which both have a sense of accessibility that lacks the pretension of the more formal construct generally seen in "professional theater." Distance is replaced with familiarity, and the resulting relationship with the audience benefits performer, audience member, and production alike.
The resulting production is at times tongue-in-cheek, but also genuinely effective -- especially when it comes to the dual narratives of romantic and lustful loves. The audience's reaction to certain moments was proof that, no matter how much we laughed, we also cared about these characters. The large cast appears as a unified whole in a way that makes working with a large cast look easy (it's not -- so that's quite a feat). There are also some very nice performances, notably Stephen Stout as Foppington, Seth Moore as Worthy, Bonnie Milligan as Hoyden, and Allison Buck as Amanda.
I also want to take a moment to talk a little bit more about the impressive ensemble work that I see in every production done by The Bats, the ensemble acting company at The Flea. These actors execute choreographer Will Taylor's imaginative choreography, play musical instruments, sing, and then socialize with the audience while serving food and drinks, all in between acting in the play itself. These individuals are what give the company the charming, intimate vibe that makes The Flea such a special place for me. I always have fun with The Bats, and I can tell it's because they're having fun, not just pretending to.
I walked out of the theater tonight with my energy for theater-going restored. Some shows, like some people in life, can suck the energy right out of you. Other shows, and people, give you energy. You should find the theaters that inspire you and make you happy, and spend time with them. The Flea is one of those places for me. I walked out into the cold night fortified with three and a half hours of a great show, a few drinks, and some delicious hors d'oeuvres. So if you want a full night experience that includes all of these things, head down to the The Flea's Restoration Comedy and let's have a comedy!
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