Not long ago, the remains of Shakespeare’s Curtain Theatre – built in 1577 and the site where “Henry V” and “Romeo and Juliet” were first performed – were discovered beneath a graveled yard in congested east London.
Although to passersby they were just a bunch of bricks and decaying wood foundation walls, to experts from the Museum of London Archaeology the remains “clear away the miserable piles of Victoriana and Empire, revealing the wild, anarchic and joyous London lurking beneath.”
Like-minded though less expressive enthusiasm surrounded the rediscovery of the play, “The Woman Hater,” a long-forgotten and never-performed satire written between 1796 and 1801 by Frances Burney, an influential novelist but comparatively inconsequential and infrequent playwright.
The play resurfaced in 1945 when the New York Public Library acquired a collection of Burney’s novels, letters and plays. The work was published for the first time in 1995, received its first production in Montreal in 2003, and is currently on stage at Mamaí.
Theater historians have called “The Woman Hater” the “missing link between Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oscar Wilde” – a satirical indictment of the excesses of privileged men and women that puts on display Burney’s wily and insightful protofeminism, which fits nicely into Mamaí’s artistic wheelhouse and mission statement.
To casual observers, however, the play is pretty much a period piece that bears all the hallmarks of its time: lengthy, long-winded and laden with identities that are mistaken, social pretensions that are exposed, and a happy ending that is as hard-earned as it is abrupt upon arrival.
And the play, as do others from that era, requires the audience to pay close attention from the get-go, for it opens with an abundance of exposition intended to launch the intrinsically connected sub-plots that have been in the making 17 years before the curtain rises.
We learn that Sir Roderick and his sister Eleonora were set to marry another pair of siblings, the Wilmots. Just before their wedding, Sir Roderick was abandoned by his fiancée who then married Lord Smatter. And despite Sir Roderick’s vows to disinherit his sister if she followed through with her own marriage to Wilmot, she did, and the couple fled to the West Indies.
As the play begins, we are introduced to the titular hero, the jilted Sir Roderick (Doug Kusak). He has become a curmudgeon and a fanatical misogynist, who lives to denounce women and verbally abuse his steward Stevens (John Polk) and the other servants (Dylan Freeman and Gus Mahoney).
He shares his home with an heir, the young Jack Waverley (Evan Thompson), but promises to disinherit Jack and toss out his sycophantic father (Michael Regnier) if they detour from devout bachelorhood. Of course, Jack is a bundle of raging hormones and incapable of controlling himself.
Sir Roderick’s former fiancée, Lady Smatter (Carrie Williams), is once again single and has turned into a voracious reader with a tendency to misquote from novels and plays, driving her maid (Marcia Mandell) and everyone else crazy.
And Eleonora (Rachel Lee Kolis), having left her jealous husband Wilmot (TJ Gainley) years ago, has returned to the English countryside with their daughter Sophia (Natalie Welch) and a maid (Shannon Sharkey).
Wilmot has also returned to find and apologize to Eleonora, though he too has a young girl (Meg Martinez) and her nurse (Khaki Hermann) in tow, whom he believes to be his daughter.
Both girls seek out Sir Roderick for financial support, though one of them mistakes Old Waverley for her uncle.
For nearly three hours, 18th-century insanity ensues as Sir Roderick steams when confronted by females, Lady Smatter misquotes, young Jack Waverley seduces, Old Waverley is befuddled, and Wilmot theatrically laments. And we are introduced to Bob (Nate Miller), the idiot nephew of the steward Stevens.
Under Christine McBurney’s stalwart direction, all this makes absolute sense and unfolds with remarkable dexterity, speed and humor. In fact, “The Woman Hater” is thoroughly entertaining. Expedient and interesting scene changes on an all-purpose, period-appropriate set designed by Don McBride, accompanied by period-appropriate segue music designed by Richard Ingraham and adorned with Angelina Herin’s costuming, help hold our attention.
The entire ensemble delights in the satirically melodramatic dialogue the players are handed and create rich, relatable characters that at first appear preposterous and foreign, but quickly grow on you. The featured players – particularly Kusak, Gainley, Regnier, Kolis and Williams – are remarkably adept at speed-reading as well as stage presence, while Polk, Welch and Martinez are absolutely charming.
The excavation of Shakespeare’s Curtain Theatre may have revealed the wild, anarchic and joyous London lurking beneath it, but Mamaí’s resurrection of Frances Burney’s “The Woman Hater” has given it voice.