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Friday, December 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Review

Sex? Yes, please, we're late-1600s Brits

Seattle Times theater critic

First, a word from The Rake.

Swathed in satin, lace-cuffed, bewigged and braced, the actor playing the dashing London debaucher Loveless introduces himself to us as the evening's "hunk."

And after trilling off a few choice couplets, he assures the audience, "No, the play is not all in verse. Just this speech."

Loveless, portrayed with woozy but disarmingly roguish panache by Stephen Caffrey, is but the first in a costume parade of stock characters from the late-17th century English theater to hold forth on the Bagley Wright Theatre stage.

Joining him on the promenade are: The Fop. The Cunning Vixen. The Country Bumpkin. The Virtuous Wife. The Reformed Cad.

Such garishly garbed, ornately garrulous figures in Seattle Repertory Theatre's world premiere of "Restoration Comedy" often bear the same names (and archetypes) as characters from two comic hits of the 1690s: "Love's Last Shift" by Colley Cibber, and John Vanbrugh's sequel to it, "The Relapse." And in this R-rated show, they are as bawdy as ever.

But similarities aside, they are largely the creations of Amy Freed, an American playwright who niftily deconstructed Elizabethan theater in her last Rep romp ("The Beard of Avon"). Here she dares to mesh the historic elements and trimmings of Restoration-era entertainment with a modern moral sensibility and postmodern theatrics.

Now playing

"Restoration Comedy" by Amy Freed. Tuesday-Sunday through Jan. 7 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; $10-$46 (www.seattlerep.org or 206-443-2222).

That Freed succeeds as well as she does, in a stylishly performed, opulently attired and mirthsome mounting of the new work by former Rep artistic director Sharon Ott is good news for the Rep, which has had a rocky first season so far under new artistic director David Esbjornson.

The plot of "Restoration Comedy," plucked from the Cibber and Vanbrugh scripts, concerns the return of the promiscuous Loveless to London from the Continent, where he fled the pious disapproval of his high-minded "marble pillar" of a wife, Amanda (lovely Caralyn Kozlowski).

Worthy (stalwart Neil Maffin), an old friend of Loveless, sets his own attraction to Amanda aside to unite her with her prodigal husband. How? Naturally, by teaching her the ribald tricks of the vamps her mate prefers.

But the taming of the rake is only temporary. When Amanda's saucy cousin Berinthia (sly-boots Suzanne Bouchard) joins their household, Loveless can't resist relapsing into sexual decadence — or as he puts it, "Blood on fire, conscience on ice."

There are also several subplots in "Restoration Comedy." One concerns a screaming queen of a dandy, Lord Foppington (mugged to the hilt by Jonathan Freeman) and his impoverished brother (Matthew Schneck). Another has to do with Worthy's pursuit of a "nit-brained" heiress, Narcissa (Bhama Roget).

Minor comic types are handily milked for laughs by Laurence Ballard, Gabriel Baron and Laura Kenny, whose frivolous doyenne, Hillaria, resembles a satin river barge.

Speaking of which, the lavish costumes by Anna R. Oliver are magnificent. And Hugh Landwehr's sets, which make hay with pen-and-ink illustrations of Old London, Peter Maradudin's lighting, and the mock-period music by Stephen LeGrand and Eric Drew Feldman are all top-drawer.

The script needs some work. It short changes some plot points and sometimes fudges the line between parody and homage. And while there's a lot of inspired shtick in Ott's production, some bumpkin and other bits are broader than "Hee Haw."

But Freed's word-drunk love of elegant witticism, and her nimble appropriations and subversions of the Restoration bon mot and rhetorical flourish, are really impressive. And as we endure culture wars nearly as fierce as those pitting the Puritans against the Decadents in Restoration England, her trumpeting of sexual freedom and moral tolerance would have been impossible for Cibber and Vanbrugh in their scripts. It may even excite debate among modern theatergoers.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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