The setup: Like pretty much every other theater with "Shakespeare" in its name, Mesa's Southwest Shakespeare Company peppers each season with plays written by other people. They're usually referred to as "classical." Some companies also present newer shows that are Shakespeare-related or -inspired, and SSC has been doing quite a bit of Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde lately, as well, with mixed results.
One of the criteria that appear to mean "classical" is "centuries old, with an English script available." Many of us were required to read plays of this nature in college.
Some old classics are much better live, off the page, even today. Others, despite their historical and literary importance, can be quite a slog. Oliver Goldsmith's 1773 hit She Stoops to Conquer, Southwest Shakespeare's current production, is a huge milestone in the development of English comedy that now teeters on the brink of irredeemable fustiness.
See also: - A Christmas Carol from Southwest Shakespeare Is Virtually Sold Out in Mesa and Worth the Trouble - Shakespeare at the Biltmore: The Importance of Being Earnest and A Midsummer Night's Dream - Curtains: Southwest Shakespeare's Blithe Spirit Is Blithe and Spirited, Thank God
The execution: Not every piece of old literature that was popular in its day is equal. We use language much differently and expect quite different qualities in our entertainment from our 18th-century counterparts, and not every author's work is capable of entirely surmounting those obstacles.
What you'll notice almost immediately about the script of She Stoops to Conquer is that, although just about everything the characters say sounds familiar and understandable (and this ensemble does a phenomenal job of delivering the dialogue and its intended meanings), they say everything about four times per speech, introduce the same bits of exposition over and over, and in general seem to be compensating for a hypothetical audience that's mostly drunk and distracted (which might be why I could swear I remember enjoying this show on a date in my early 20s).
Though a couple of the cast are so charming it almost doesn't matter, most of the company appears to be obeying orders to go nice and slowly to make sure we get everything. This takes them 2.5 hours, including intermission, and if you're having fun, that's nothing, but if life in a theater seat teaches one anything, it's that you can convince yourself you're smack in the middle of dying of something mysterious if you're stuck not having fun for that long.
The bits of fun come mostly from Jesse James Kamps as Tony Lumpkin, who has always been the most beloved character in She Stoops, to the extent that another writer altogether went ahead and wrote a sequel about him. Lumpkin is a fun-loving, slovenly, appetite-driven, insouciant, unsophisticated but not stupid catalyst of high jinks aplenty.
Kamps throws himself so energetically into Lumpkin that I kept thinking, "I know which actor this is, and I know I've seen him before, but I don't recognize him." He appears three times the size of anyone else on stage, and most of that is rooted in performance (not just his, but those of his scene-mates by contrast, which, though deliberate and virtually inherent in the text, may contribute to the show's problems).
As the title character ("she" who stoops and conquers, a.k.a. Kate Hardcastle), Southwest Shakespeare comic standby Justine Hartley is, as always, graceful in carriage and intelligent in a kinda-sexy way. She doesn't display easy chemistry with any of the rest of the actors, but now that I think about it, nobody here really does, and that might be a stylistic choice with an unfortunate consequence. Hartley is marooned upstage much of the time and has less stage time than some of the others, giving her fewer chances to connect with the audience.
Spencer Dooley was genuinely amusing as Kate's suitor, young Marlow, who is a conceited snot-rag. He's also supposed to be full of desirable virtues, shy around upper-class women, and friendly, flirtatious, and talkative with working-class women. That latter dichotomy is particularly hard to present as anything other than a massive and unpleasant personality flaw, and in general young Marlowe simply has far to0 much to carry in the storyline, so the cognitive dissonance Dooley induces might not be his fault.
The set and costumes are elegant, fun, and functional. Very. Jeff Thompson and Maci Hosler, respectively, designed them.
The verdict: Sadly, this production of She Stoops to Conquer is an example of the type of classical theater that keeps people away from classical theater. And it's unfortunate that the company that's producing it is the only professional full-time classical company in town and is struggling to stay in business, because this show, if considered in a vacuum, ought not convince anyone to help Southwest Shakespeare.
She Stoops to Conquer continues through Saturday, April 27, at Mesa Arts Center, One East Main Street. Admission is $12.50 to $33.50 -- purchase tickets here or call 480-644-6500.