When putting on a play written 300 years ago, a director faces the problem of how to make the audience understand material written in another age and in another culture.
This is the problem faced by director Robert Starko in the Albion College Theatre Department’s production of William Congreve’s comedy of manners “The Way of the World”. Sadly, this production did not translate very well onto the modern stage.
The biggest obstacle to the enjoyment of “The Way of the World” is the archaic dialogue. Really, the word archaic fails to do justice to the verbiage being projected from the players’ mouths. I often saw audience members looking around confused when the actors gave pauses for laughter. It doesn’t help that the actual plot of the play is fairly convoluted as well. Several married characters are engaging in adultery, some characters are disguising themselves, and an the underlying love story gets lost amidst the lust of the other characters.
The study guide the usher passed out at the door (and yes, the usher passed out a study guide at the door) claimed that “a whole page of brilliant dialogue will lead up to one devastating line” in “The Way of the World.” That may very well be true, but you wouldn’t know it watching the play. Despite the players’ best attempts to gesture along with the dialogue and enunciate their lines, the audience often just got lost. The sharp wit in the verbal duels the play features is dulled by three hundred years of separation between the writing of “The Way of the World” and this production.
This is not to say that any of the actors performed poorly, for in fact, the performances were the play’s saving grace. Director Robert Starko’s skill and attention to detail in advising his cast is evident, for all the players gave off the impression of being 18th-century English aristocrats with ease. The poise and posture of each player brought a snapshot of the year 1700 to the audience in a brilliant way. The constantly furrowed eyebrows, upturned lips, and devilish smiles of each actor communicated the obsession with reputation and sexual undertones of the period. Even if the dialogue was impenetrable, the stage breathed with life.
The comic relief of Zach Neithercut’s Petulant and Peter Verhaege’s Witwould comes through despite any difficulties with the language the audience may have. Neithercut’s perpetual sneer will leave you in tears, even when he is just strutting in the background, and the way Verhaege whips his handkerchief when Witwould is flustered is enough to elicit chuckles no matter what. Brandon Marino’s Fainall is another standout. The way in which he hilariously fails to seduce his mistress, Jordan Burgess’ Lady Marwood, opposite Paden McCown’s Mirabell is wonderful. Although “The Way of the World” has its faults, they certainly do not lie with the players’ prowess.
The play’s set and costume design were a huge force for the Theatre Department in its battle against falling eyelids. The brilliant colors and extravagance of each player’s costume was truly memorable, and created visual interest onstage underneath the verbal drudgery. The wigs and white face paint each player sported transformed them into their characters, and I was taken aback by the effort the cast and crew put into creating a world for the players to inhabit. The backdrop featured a massive globe and a banner emblazoned with the play’s title, a symbolic touch that added a regal air to the proceedings onstage. The combination of lifelike performances and beautiful visuals are a testament to the talent of the Albion College Theatre Department.
But, despite the greatest efforts of the cast and crew, it appeared that “The Way of the World” did not translate well onto the Herrick stage in 2013. Watching the play, I had mixed feelings about what that meant. Have we as an audience lost our appreciation for good theatre? Would I know it if it came up and threw its powdered wig at me?
I wondered if it’s less a problem with the audience and more a problem with the choice of play. Would the audience enjoy the theatre more if they could more often see plays that they could relate to? Recent modern comedies such as”The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “Earl the Vampire” were riots, and I saw audiences respond very well to them. I’m again reminded of how some students I know said they fell asleep during last year’s Shakespeare production. Shame on them, perhaps, for not knowing art when they see it, but perhaps they’d give theatre more of a chance if they could see more plays they enjoyed?
But I’m loathe to indict the Albion College Theatre Department that way, because of the incredible skill and care everyone involved in “The Way of the World” took to bring it to life, despite the play’s best efforts. Each player, even in the small parts, lived their role onstage with the studied ease of seasoned actors. The play’s art direction was engrossing, and contributed to the production in a way that made you feel as though you were in the 18th century. As sad as I am to say it, all that effort couldn’t overcome source material that has simply become dull with age.