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      The Wonder! A Woman Keeps a Secret
    The "Wonder" Years

    "The Wonder! A Woman Keeps a Secret" revives the still-entertaining work of Susannah Centlivre, one of a 18th-century generation of women playwrights who broke ground in the London theater and set the stage for Jane Austen.


    Susannah Centlivre was one of six women playwrights who debuted their work on the London stage between 1695 and 1700. A prolific writer, she wrote over 20 scripts which were frequently produced throughout the 1700s, before her death and afterward. Attending a studio performance of her most popular comedy "The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret," I was struck by how much her writing influenced Jane Austen's work half a century later. In fact, Austen's own cousin Eliza de Feuillide played the leading role in a 1787 staging of this same play at the Austen country estate. Centlivre plays are rarely presented today and "The Wonder" currently running throughout February at the T. Schreiber Studio directed by Elizabeth Swaine is well worth its $15 ticket.

    Written by: Susanna Centlivre.
    Directed by: Elizabeth Swain.
    Cast: Ami Ankin, Brian Avers, Mel England, Reed Gazzale, Aimee Howard, Terrence Keene, Wry Lachlan, Caroline Luft, J.M. McDonough, Joe MacDougall, Elizabeth Alice Murray, Jon Okabayashi, Michael Russell, Luisa Tedoff, Andrew Wise.
    Choreography by: Haila Strauss.
    Gloria Maddox Theatre
    151 West 26th Street, 7th floor
    Jan. 24 - Feb. 24, 2002

    Set in Portugal, the play riffs off of the misunderstandings between two pairs of lovers and a trio. Lady Violante agrees to hide her lover's sister Isabella who has run away from home to escape an unpleasant marriage proposal. For her good deed, Violante is mistakenly accused by her lover — who has little to no interest in his sister's actual whereabouts — to be harboring a man on her estate. Out of loyalty to her friend, alas, she cannot confess the truth. Meanwhile, Isabella has fallen for the British soldier who caught her as she jumped from her bedroom window while fleeing the unwanted match. The Brit's suitability as a suitor, however, has yet to be determined. As for the promised trio — two chambermaids are in love with the same valet (Joe MacDougall), who plays them off each other expertly.

    Centlivre, a contemporary of the satirist Jonathan Swift and also Irish-born, means to level her critique at the frustrating impossibility of a woman achieving her own independence in eighteenth-century Europe:

    The Custom of our Country inslaves us from our very Cradles, first to our Parents, next to our Husbands; and when Heaven is so kind to rid us of both these, our Brothers still usurp Authority.

    Isabella and Violante have no ambition (perhaps to be a playwright, for instance) other than to marry of their choosing and are as characters spoiled and annoying. Centlivre does, it seems take a stronger position on the inequality between the classes. The two chambermaids, mischievously portrayed with great charm by Aimee Howard and Luisa Tedoff, speak almost as equals to their mistresses and have a ball ridiculing them behind their backs. What's more, the impish maids seems to enjoy life far more than their prudish, wealthier counterparts, well played by Ami Ankin and Elizabeth Alice Murray. At the very least, the servants get significantly more action, with several makeout sessions apiece, and that's just what we see on stage. Also in a servant role, Wry Lachlan gives a hilarious performance as a Scottish footman, a caricature that rivals and I am sure is influenced by The Simpsons' Groundskeeper Willy.

    As the wealthy suitors, Brian Avers and Mel England are very convincing. Avers, especially, understands the high comedy of the piece, allowing himself to portray his character with over-the-top high jinks and complete conviction at the same time.

    Simply directed, the evening ends with a beautifully choreographed dance by Haila Strauss. Although, the show is long (three hours) and the text imperfect, for a serious theater lover it's as important to be familiar with Centlivre's work as a dramatist as it is to know Jane Austen's work as a novelist.

    The T. Schreiber Studio company does an admirable job with this production of "The Wonder!" but make a reservation because the cast has been performing to sold-out houses since the beginning of its run.

    FEBRUARY 16, 2002

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