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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 6.0° F  Fair
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Intricate machinations in The Belle's Stratagem at American Players Theatre
Colleen Madden (left) and Sarah Day, who's all cheekbones
and cunning.
Colleen Madden (left) and Sarah Day, who's all cheekbones and cunning.
Credit:Zane Williams

I took a break from my obsessive Olympics viewing to see American Players Theatre's production of The Belle's Stratagem. First performed in 1780, the play is the best-known work of Hannah Cowley, the successful female playwright. There is probably a performance studies graduate student at NYU who is working on a dissertation about the impact of Cowley and other female dramatists, so I won't go into that.

The play is an interesting offering in APT's season, but isn't entirely successful. Director David Frank has done what he can to move the action along, but with so much time spent laying out intricate machinations and introducing the large cast, it gets a bit tedious. Even so, Cowley offers some amusing moments and many tart and timeless observations on society, love and matrimony.

I'll do my best to give you the Reader's Digest version of the plot, in which childhood sweethearts are to wed in a marriage arranged by their fathers. Doricourt, a debonair and well-traveled gentleman, is disappointed when reunited with Letitia, finding her pretty but not spirited enough. Sensing his apathy, she devises a plan to make him despise her, reasoning that it's easier to change an extreme opinion than one of indifference. Acting brash and uncouth, she succeeds in horrifying Doricourt and sets her sights on winning him over while disguised at a masquerade.

Meanwhile, in the same social circle, Sir Touchwood attempts to keep his kind, country-girl wife away from the vices of "fashionable life." He's overprotective, but his paranoia is actually well-founded, as various characters meddle in his marriage and try to corrupt his bride.

It's an attractive production. Set designer Junghyun Georgia Lee's large, empty gilded frames of various sizes and styles literally frame the action. Robert Morgan's costumes are mostly beautiful and lavish, but a few look chintzy.

Standouts in the cast include Darragh Kennan, teetering on the precipice of outlandish with his portrayal of foppish gadfly Flutter, who wears a puffy Cowardly Lionlike wig and mangles all of his gossip. Sarah Day is all cheekbones and cunning as the Widow Racket. Carey Cannon as the virtuous Lady Touchwood is serene and lovely. Colleen Madden as Letitia wasn't my favorite, but she does have fun in the role.

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