THE WAY OF THE WORLD by William Congreve, directed by Peter Hinton (Soulpepper/National Arts Centre). At Young Centre for the Arts (55 Mill). To August 2. $28-$65. 416-866-8666. soulpepper.ca. Rating: NNN
Subtlety is not a word easily applied to the Restoration period, and director Peter Hinton seems to have resisted any attempt at it in Soulpepper/National Arts Centre’s cartoonish romp through one of the period’s best-loved comedies.
Played for belly laughs, Lady Wishfort (Tanja Jacobs) is a bawdy, brandy-swigging clown in a pink wig whose pretence of youth – whether it’s by electrical tummy toner or makeup applied by the trowelful – is as ridiculous as the puffy tangerine-like dress in which she thrashes about the stage (just one of designer Carolyn M. Smith’s clever hints at the baroque period Hinton abandons for his 1950s translation).
Decked out like an Elvis impersonator, Witwoud (Damien Atkins) is a hilariously posturing dandy, the tweedle-dee to William Webster’s drunken tweedle-dum Mr. Petulant, while Maria Vacratsis becomes a busty, beehived maid on a mission as Mrs. Foible. Only Nancy Palk’s Mrs. Marwood offers anything near real human emotion in the first act.
In this mercenary, Machiavellian society, everyone detests someone, and scheming and endless asides, along with the antiquated language, make some of the more convoluted scenes virtually impossible to follow.
Things speed up in the second act with the arrival of the instrumental but idiotic Sir Wilfull (John Jarvis). The finest scene takes place as the labyrinthine plot begins to unravel, between the superbly acted central characters, lovers Mirabell (played with equal parts arrogance and anxiety by Mike Shara) and the calculating Millamant (imbued with genuine emotion and, yes, subtlety by Caroline Cave).
Their cold, calculating prenuptial agreement cannot conceal the mutual passion and violent love that brings this at times frivolous farce crashing to its satisfying conclusion.