By 1709, the year that Susanna Centlivre’s The Busy Body had its premiere and run of 13 performances, the fortunes of Restoration comedy had come, gone, and come again. The audience interest in comedic salaciousness and sexual intrigue that typified the early Restoration in its first twenty-five years or so since 1660 had given way, by the turn of the century, to works that bloomed with wit and romantic encounters, but that always seemed to have an uplifting moral of some degree.
Centlivre’s The Busy Body, currently in a tremendously clever, intelligent, and entertaining production by the Clarence Brown Theatre in the Carousel Theatre, follows that pattern. The play’s main thread, the issue of parents and guardians using their children’s (especially marriage-age females) personal lives and inheritances to further their own selfish interests, is wrapped up in the closing speech. That speech, delivered by the character of Sir Jealous Traffick, reveals an all-too miraculous change of heart regarding his daughter Isabinda’s romantic desires.
By my example let all parents move,
And never strive to cross their children’s love:
But still submit that care to Providence above.”
Working toward that final “moral of the story,” Director John Sipes — along with co-adaptor Misty Anderson of the UT English Department — has taken the work, maintained specific connections to the period theatrical styles and practices, and has given it a 21st Century clarity, zip, and zest that lies at the heart of this production’s success. Bridging the centuries is the production’s visual style, a product of a marvelous scenic design by Nevena Prodanovic, fascinating period-style costumes by Marianne Custer, mock-presentational lighting by John Ambrosone, and intriguing sound and music by Maranda DeBusk.
The plot feels quite familiar, although you’ll tire yourself needlessly trying to find an exact reference. Two women, Isabinda and Miranda, are under the thumb, respectively, of a hateful father and a lustful guardian, preventing them from the men of their own choice. Isabinda’s suitor is Charles, the son of Sir Francis Gripe, who has designs on his own ward, Miranda. Miranda, of course, is pursued by Sir George Airy, a “gentleman of four thousand pounds a year.” Following the style of comic names, the plot complication comes from the character of Marplot, also a ward of Sir Francis. It is Marplot who is the “busy body,” a gentleman who cannot tolerate secrets or intrigues that exclude him, and who has the innate ability to foul up the simplest of social tasks.
Sipes has selected a seemingly perfect cast from the ranks of the professional CBT theatre faculty and MFA acting candidates, in addition to a few guest actors. From that latter category, in the role of Marplot was the comically brilliant Charles Pasternak, last seen at CBT in last season’s Titus Andronicus. Pasternak’s depth of comedic details—both physical and in delivery—makes one squirm, snicker, and laugh out loud, sometimes simultaneously, if that is even possible.
Making his debut with CBT in the role of Sir Francis Gripe was Brian Mani, who captured the comedic lasciviousness of the old fart with a wealth of bluster and obliviousness. In the character of Miranda—the target of Sir Francis but in love with the handsome Sir George—the audience was once again treated to the sensational energy and versatility of actress and singer Charlotte Munson. Munson previously held lead roles in CBT productions of South Pacific and Violet.
Admiration is due Jeff Dickamore for completely capturing both sides—the swaggering suitor and the successful lover—of the character of Sir George. Charles, Sir George’s friend and lover of Isabinda, was taken with an equal amount of swagger and personality by Jude Carl Vincent. As Isabinda, Charles’ romantic match, Lauren Pennline brought some welcome comic subtlety to the physicality of her role.
If there is such a thing as comedic glue, Emily Kicklighter manufactured it in a marvelous take on Patch, Isabinda’s servant, who is called upon to make excuses and help thwart the forces that are preventing love from triumphing.
Terry Weber, of the UT acting faculty, has a way with comedy—and a way with villainy. That apparently made him perfect for the comic villain role of Sir Jealous Traffick. And yet, with that miraculous change of heart, he gets to deliver the “moral of the story.”
The moral of this story is that CBT’s production of The Busy Body should not be missed.