Take, for example, the butler who delivers many laughs in the 90-minute version directed and adapted by Kerry McGee, presented by the classics-oriented company We Happy Few. Played by an aptly deadpan Jack Novak, the egomaniacal yet decorum-
focused servant is employed at a Baron’s castle, where he insists on communicating need-to-know information via self-composed jangly rhymes. The results are screamingly funny, even in a production that overdoes its spoofing of the play’s melodrama.
“Lovers’ Vows” was controversial in its day (and hence scandalized the more priggish characters in “Mansfield Park”) because of the proto-feminist, anti-elitist behavior of its ingenue character, Amelia, and because the ultimately upbeat main plot turns on an illegitimate birth. The opening scene introduces us to the sick, impoverished Agatha (Jessica Lefkow), who raised her now-adult son Frederick (Novak) by herself, after she was seduced and abandoned by Baron Wildenhaim (Lee Ordeman). Frederick’s solicitude for Agatha puts him on a collision course with his dad. Meanwhile, Amelia (Gabby Wolfe), the Baron’s plucky legitimate daughter, proposes marriage to Anhalt (Alex Turner), the penniless clergyman she loves, even as she is courted by Count Cassel (Lefkow), a snobbish, philandering idiot. The ensuing complications provide grist for the butler’s hilariously bad poetry.
McGee’s staging winks knowingly at the play’s potboiler narrative and creaky dramaturgy: Stylized sound and lighting cues underscore soap-opera-style developments, and the characters react to events in deliberately exaggerated fashion. While an understandable choice, the approach becomes wearying: A few more notes of sincerity would have better served the play. Other problems include sequences of interpolated expressionistic movement that don’t add value and a labored quality in some stage business (the butler’s habit of startling people, for instance).
But Ordeman brings poise, and even poignancy, to the morally weak Baron; Novak displays fine comic timing as Frederick; and Turner’s confident channeling of the bemused Anhalt enhances the character’s romantic jousting with Amelia, who is always in control. (“Such a forward young lady,” a “Mansfield Park” character says disparagingly of Amelia, who will strike 2019 audiences as an enchanting nevertheless-she-persisted precursor.)
Heather Lockard has designed piquant period costumes, and Jason Aufdem-Brinke’s deft lighting turns simple backdrops into tapestries for the castle scenes, complementing the set’s few furnishings. (The backdrops also enable some effective shadow play.) The incidental music, by local band the North Country, reinstates some of the emotion that the arch directing strips away.
We Happy Few has mounted other notable productions — an ingeniously condensed “The Winter’s Tale” still lingers in memory — but rescuing “Lovers’ Vows” from near oblivion is surely the company’s greatest achievement to date. While imperfect, this production is a must-see for Jane Austen fans. And anyone with a sense of humor will exult in the poetically minded butler.
Lovers’ Vows by Elizabeth Inchbald. Directed and adapted by Kerry McGee; scenic designer, Jon Reynolds; sound designer, Tosin Olufolabi; movement director, Raven Bonniwell; fight choreography, Andrew Keller. 90 minutes. $20. Through Nov. 23 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. wehappyfewdc.com.