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Next up for University Theatre at N.C. State is The School for Scandal, a delightful 1777 comedy of manners by Irish-born British dramatist Richard Brensley Sheridan (1751-1816). UT will stage what may be the greatest comedy of manners ever written in English from Feb. 25 to Feb. 29 in Stewart Theatre on the NCSU campus in Raleigh, North Carolina.
First produced in May 1777 at Drury Lane, The School for Scandal earned Sheridan the title "the title of 'the modern Congreve,'" claims Cecil John Layton Price, writing for Encyclopædia Britannica. Price adds, "Although resembling Congreve in that its satirical wit is so brilliant and so general that it does not always distinguish one character from another, The School for Scandal does contain two subtle portraits in Joseph Surface and Lady Teazle. There were several Restoration models (e.g., Mrs. Pinchwife in William Wycherley's The Country-Wife and Miss Hoyden in Vanbrugh's The Relapse) for the portrayal of a country girl amazed and delighted by the sexual freedom of high society. Sheridan softened his Lady Teazle, however, to suit the more refined taste of his day. The part combined innocence and sophistication and was incomparably acted. The other parts were written with equal care to suit the members of the company, and the whole work was a triumph of intelligence and imaginative calculation. With its spirited ridicule of affectation and pretentiousness, it is often considered the greatest comedy of manners in English."
The current University Theatre at N.C. State presentation of The School for Scandal, under the direction of Fred Gorelick, will be set in London in 1947 and fueled, as was the original, by gossip, gossip, and more gossip — much of it about who is wearing what. "The New Look" by Dior is one such subject. UT director of theater John C. McIlwee's costumes will recreate Dior's "New Look," and scenic designer Corky Pratt's posh set and décor will mirror the elegance of that same era and the theatricality of the 1940s.
"In order to examine the components that make up a Restoration comedy, we chose to deconstruct the form by setting The School for Scandal in 1947 and telling the story of the play as though it were written by Noël Coward while retaining the dialogue as originally written in 1777," writes Fred Gorelick in his Director's Notes. "Certainly the most successful 20th-century progeny of the English-language comedy of manners, Noël Coward's flair for simultaneously mocking and embracing the upper class and its foibles is cunning in its resonance of the great comedies of the late 18th century. Our physical production might house and clothe a Coward play; his music is here used as it might season one of his own works.
Gorelick adds that he and costume designer John McIlwee "are each fascinated with the revolutionary period in fashion, The New Look, ushered in by Christian Dior in February 1947, and so we borrow the extravagances of this glamorous period in design to echo the fripperies of the Restoration. The set and lighting designs continue to weave the delightful theatricality of 1940s' surrealism to create the magical box that illuminates the nonsense of the privileged classes at play.
"In this way," Gorelick says, "we find the comic components of stock characters, sexual intrigue, rumor, lies, mistaken identity, irony, bon mots, social commentary and just-desserts as evergreen ingredients of modern comedy as well. The darker side of our School speaks both of period and contemporary racism. As prevalent as anti-semitism was in Sheridan's time, so it was in the post World War II western world. Productions of The Merchant of Venice must come to grips with Elizabethan anti-semitism, just as we chose to leave the text's discussion of Jewish money lenders unaltered. Hopefully, everyone has the last laugh."
Scenic designer Corky Pratt adds, "The creative team's concept of the show was taken from Fred's decision to set the play in the late 1940s. The costumer, John McIlwee, was interested in exploring the 'new Dior look' that was hitting the catwalks all over the world.
"After looking at the exaggerated silhouettes and design patterns of the line," Pratt notes, "I thought that it would be interesting to research what the avant-garde art world was dipping their brushes into. The period I was drawn to for the most part was the surrealistic movement, as well as the Dada movement that sprang out from the period. It seemed logical to me that since the Dior look had such an other-worldly feel (especially for the time), that the set design should incorporate the same ideals."
Pratt says, "It was important for me to draw from images that were created during the years of 1947-49, so [the set] would correspond to the costumes. The color palette and hanging assemblages, as well as the spinning bicycle wheels, all pay homage to some of the most important painters of the movement. Most notably traces of Rene Margritte, Marcel Duachamp, DeChirico, and Salvador Dali can be found on the set. Even though the design has a classical feel to it, the juxtaposition of the found and hanging objects and larger-than-life doorways help highlight the silliness of the play."
University Theatre at N.C. State presents The School for Scandal Wednesday-Saturday, Feb. 25-28, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 29, at 3 p.m. in NCSU's Stewart Theatre on the second floor of the Talley Student Center on Cates Ave. in Raleigh, North Carolina. $14 ($12 senior citizens, students, NCSU faculty and staff, and members of the NCSU Alumni Association, and $6 NCSU students). 919/515-1100. http://www.fis.ncsu.edu/University_Players/scandal.htm [inactive 11/04].