Modern theater companies really ought to stage Restoration comedies more often. While almost every age has its Benny Hills and Tyler Perrys, nothing in English can top the best of the randy plays of the late 1600s for dirty antics and laugh-out-loud comedy.
The language of the stage had evolved by that time from the days of Shakespeare, into an English easily recognizable and followable by modern ears. The best of the comedies, which typically dealt with the sexual escapades of the aristocracy, were full of puns and double-entendres that we, more than three centuries later, can get – and cleverness few of us can aspire to.
Hence there’s no need to look at any footnotes or do any advance reading to get, and enjoy, Aphra Behn’s Sir Patient Fancy. Especially not when it’s staged with the boisterous energy and all-in comedic skill of The Queen’s Company, whose new production is at The Wild Project through April 5. Directed by Rebecca Patterson, the production has an all-female cast – that’s how The Queen’s Company rolls – but the play’s skewering of the male sex needs no conceptual reinforcement. Officially helpless as they are, beholden to their men’s decisions on marriage and fortunes, these female characters nevertheless manage to manipulate and control a good deal of the action.
The moral poobahs of the time didn’t mind laughing at themselves as men, I suppose; rather, it seems it was the unrelenting sexual content of Behn’s plays that eventually put them out to pasture. Though she had numerous successes in her lifetime, it wasn’t long after she died – in 1689, at the age of 49 or so – that her work mostly vanished into obscurity for a few centuries.
Behn’s life story remains mostly obscure, too, though what is known is quite interesting both in itself and in the light it sheds on the times. Evidently, by her late 30s when she wrote this play, around 1678, she’d met her share of fops and dandies, blustery men of doubtful intelligence, conniving women, cuckolds and deceivers. Quack doctors, too. The one scene that doesn’t work for me centers on that stock type, which doesn’t resonate so well today – today we distinguish between professional doctors with real medical knowledge and snake-oil salesmen with quack remedies, or at least we hope we can.
The other types remain familiar. The cast features many of the company’s regulars, who bring these folks to life with perfectly calibrated exaggeration and fine comic timing. In fact, at the opening night performance the cast hadn’t yet learned just how funny they were, and had to adjust their pacing on the fly as they waited for bursts of laughter to die away.
The plot is too complex and absurd to summarize. In preparation, I read the synopsis here, but even it was too confusing to follow. It doesn’t matter. The story involves a hypochondriac Lord whose wife frolics with a younger man practically under his nose. It involves an arrogant Latin-spouting Lady, two maidens, and their suitors, plus cousins, servants, and the aforementioned doctors. It involves disguise, letter-writing, bowel humor, mistaken identity (between the sheets), dancing, swordplay, and, in this production, a score featuring Blondie and other shimmery pop.
It feels almost churlish to single out notable performances in the all-around excellent ensemble cast, so I’ll keep it to one: Tiffany Abercrombie’s hilarious Lady Fancy is a blazing bouquet of lascivious wit and hungry hustle, just as funny when she’s squirming as she is when she’s hanging all over her desired one. The lewd deliciousness puffs out from there like the seeds of a blown dandelion.
Go see it, it’s delightful. It runs through April 5 at the Wild Project, 195 E. 3 St. Get tickets online at The Queens Company website or by calling 1-866-811-4111.