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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

The Belle's Stratagem
Red Bull Theater    February 2021

A 1780 romantic comedy by Hannah Cowley proves a charming rediscovery worthy of comparison to the plays of her contemporary Sheridan. And if this online production from New York's Red Bull Theater doesn't add a lot to the play's own virtues, it doesn't get in the way much either.

A couple whose marriage was arranged when they were children meet as adults and he is not particularly impressed by her. So she sets out to win him over by becoming the alluring mysterious stranger at a masquerade party.

Meanwhile a provincial couple come to London and, thumbing her nose at Wycherley's Country Wife of a century earlier, she tastes the supposed pleasures of the Town and decides she prefers the unfashionable option of loving her husband.

Everything is presented with a light touch and a clear authorial warmth toward all the characters, even the fools and villains, and with a level of verbal wit that may not ever reach Wildean heights but provides an enjoyable background music to the action.

Necessity engendering invention, this Red Bull production joins the small body of Zoom theatre. The cast are each in their own homes, acting for the cameras on their computers, and appearing on our screens in separate windows.

It actually doesn't take a great leap of audience imagination to accept them as being in the same room, but the interactions among them are harder to develop and sustain. It is not entirely the fault of the actors, for example, that no chemistry or romantic energy develops between the unmarried couple.

And differences in acting styles or modes of characterisation that actors might instinctively lessen when working together remain unreconciled, so that someone playing for broad comedy and someone else underacting really do seem to inhabit separate realities.

Still, as I said, most of the play's romantic and comic power comes through. If director Gaye Taylor Upchurch can't get everyone into the same theatrical room, she does get good comic performances out of them individually.

Santino Fontana is satisfactorily befuddled as the groom-to-be finding himself as attracted to an unknown beauty as he is unattracted to his betrothed, and Lilli Cooper captures the determination of a woman who knows what she wants and never loses confidence that she will get it.

As the married provincials Chauncy Thomas and Jasmine Batchelor do convey the very attractive sense of a loving connection. Heather Alicia Simms as the most unapologetically life-enjoying of the Town ladies and Tony Jenkins as the most sensible of the Town beaux provide solid support.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  The Belle's Stratagem - Red Bull Theater 2021