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Rousuck's Review: "Wild Oats" at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

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Forty years ago, the Royal Shakespeare Company rediscovered a late 18th century comedy and gave it a new production that transferred to the West End. It helped turn a young actor named Jeremy Irons into a star.

The play was John O’Keeffe’s “Wild Oats.” Despite its hit revival, it’s still not widely produced. But the 1791 rom-com is receiving a jaunty production at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, under Ian Gallanar’s direction.

“Wild Oats” is a good fit for a Shakespeare company: two of its main characters are actors, and one – an itinerant actor who calls himself Jack Rover – quotes the Bard every chance he gets.

One of the production’s most amusing elements is that it never lets us forget we’re watching a play. Jack’s best friend and fellow actor occasionally turns to the audience and identifies the play Jack’s quoting. In one case, he tells us, “It’s a dated reference.” 

The plot brings together three unlikely groups: The traveling actors; a sea captain and some sailors; and Quakers. The sea captain, Sir George Thunder, is the father of Jack’s best friend as well as the uncle of an aristocrat, Lady Amaranth, who has become a Quaker.

Actors make their livings by impersonating others, and “Wild Oats” carries that one step further. The theme of being an imposter drives the action.

In the opening scene, we learn -- as his valet is more than happy to remind him -- that Sir George assumed a fake name and tricked a woman into marrying him years ago. Michael P. Sullivan plays Sir George as a snooty blowhard who talks in nautical metaphors.

Sir George isn’t the play’s only imposter. Jack Rover, the strolling player, has gotten through life by playing a series of roles – not just on stage. But Jack – given an enthusiastic, warm, inspired portrayal by Vince Eisenson -- has a good heart. He’s often near poverty, partly because he gives his money away to needy friends -- even to strangers.

In one scene, Jack empties his pockets to clear the debts of a man he barely knows. When Lady Amaranth questions Jack about this, he poses as the man’s longtime friend and continues to make things up as he goes along.

The scene is love at first sight for Jack and Lady Amaranth -- the central romance in this romantic comedy. Lizzi Albert’s Lady Amaranth has the spark she needs to be a worthy choice for Eisenson’s clever Jack. The honorable lady’s effect on him is so salutary that – perhaps for the first time – he decides he can’t bear to deceive her.

There are layers upon layers of pretending to be someone else in this play. If you get confused, well, a lot of the humor comes from a web of confusion that entraps several characters -- some portrayed by actors who, to quote Hamlet, “saw the air too much.”

But in the end, the way all of the complications sort themselves out is very satisfying. I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company revival that brought “Wild Oats” back to light. The play was charming there, and it continues to have its charms here.

Host, Midday (M-F 12:00-1:00)
J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years. Her feature coverage for The Sun included a comprehensive series chronicling the development of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Hairspray.” Judy got her start at The Cleveland Press and at Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV. Her broadcasting experience also includes a year as an on-air theater critic for Maryland Public Television.
Rob is Midday's senior producer.