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Restoration Comedy by Amy Freed (review)
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Spandex body suits, green wigs, a burlesque interlude, flirty actors, and post-show dance party: what would Cibber say? Perhaps "Demme, madam, stap my vitals!" Ed Iskandar's Drama Desk-Nominated production of Amy Freed's Restoration Comedy at The Flea this past December made a wild night of Cibber's Love's Last Shift and Vanbrugh's sequel, The Relapse, presented as a two-act, interactive romp through theatrical history and style (with free drinks). Upon walking into the small performance space in TriBeCa, one entered a jovial sea of costumed actors (The Bats, The Flea's resident company) mingling playfully with the audience and ushering them into the performance space, where some of the cast were already entertaining early arrivals with such delights as Whitney Conkling's superb rendition of Pergolesi's "Se tu m'ami." The production confidently wove in and out of anachronism throughout the evening. It asked the audience to give a wide berth to its campy sensibilities in exchange for a vital, energetic, and creative interpretation of a moment in English theater history after the peak of Restoration cynicism, in which playwrights were grappling for a meaningful sexual ethics while still pleasing their audiences with versions of the rakish men and witty women who populated wit comedies.

The cocktail party feel of Restoration Comedy is part of Iskandar's stated performance philosophy. He claims that his goal is "...to design immersive experiences that encourage active engagement." He wants this engagement to foster a grander cultural project: "I think that if theater once again became a place where society goes to mingle, it would once again become necessary to society" ("Werqing It"). Iskandar's early work shows that audiences are responding to that philosophy. He was also nominated for the Drama Desk Award for Best Director in 2012 for his work with These Seven Sicknesses, Sean Graney's adaptation of the extant Sophocles plays (Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, Ajax, Women of Trachis, Electra and Philoctetes), a six-hour evening which included breaks for dinner and dessert. The cast served the audience, and the repast was all part of the price of admission. This hip, fourth-wall-breaking reinvention of dinner theater was likewise part of Restoration Comedy. Actors poured "Loveless Lemon Punch" liberally throughout the musical preludes and then served it up again with hot hors d'oeuvres at the lengthy, tuneful intermission, which was not so much a break from the performance as a shift in its texture. The musical offerings from small groups of actors throughout the performance space ranged from Purcell to Destiny's Child. The performances were gratuitous in the best sense; a playful gift, gratis. Rosa Gilmore (Berinthia) and Mari Yamamoto (dance ensemble) greeted their public with a superb rendition of a Teleman violin duet, followed by Kelechi Ezie (Hillaria) and Kerry Ipema (dance captain) singing Handel's "Tornami a vagheggiar"; later in the intermission, Bonnie Milligan (Hoyden) belted out a very respectable "R-E-S-P-E-C-T." The abundance of talent spilling forth from this cast was remarkable in its quality, quantity, and variety. But the para-theatricals and entertainments were also part of a dialogue about how audience and players inhabit the space of the theater. That dialogue unfolded over food and drink, as it might at a dinner party, but also through the stunning mélange of music, costume, set, and other details that addressed the question of what constitutes a producible interpretation from a defiantly modernizing point of view.

The play itself began after a cheeky warning about cell phones (answer them and tell them you're at Restoration Comedy!), directions to the online-only program, and a prologue, spoken by Loveless (James Fouhey). The action then began as it did in Cibber's play, in an unidentified park in London. While the dialogue was modernized, it retained the flavor of Cibber's seedy opening, in which Loveless calls for "Dinner, and a Brace of Whores into the bargain" while his hungry servant Snap pleads "Ah! good Sir! no Whores before Dinner, I beseech you." Fouhey's Loveless paws through garbage bins and over streetwalkers while a reproving Snap (Michael Axelrod) chides...

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