Econo-Art Theatre Company

In every small, offbeat Chicago theater I’ve been to, the artistic director or members of the company have spoken yearningly of how someday they will really blow everyone’s mind by doing a regular, classic piece in conventional style. “What a concept!” they say. “Us doing straight theater!”

Well, Econo-Art has beat everyone to the punch. They’ve realized the dream with The Relapse–a straight Restoration comedy, complete with wigs, stylized vocal technique and movement, and 17th-century costumes. But while Econo-Art does a fine job with it, I still can’t help but ask why. Why would an exciting, innovative theater want to do a silly sex farce with no pertinence to 20th-century values? The answer truly seems to be–just because it’s there. The Relapse is a pure museum piece.

If you’ve seen any Restoration comedy, you know the essence of the plot. All kinds of people want to get in all kinds of other people’s pants or petticoats, but there are lots of obstacles. In The Relapse, there’s also bigamy, an impoverished younger brother who needs money as well as sex, a bunch of country bumpkins, and an excruciatingly virtuous wife. The particular twists and turns are not only too numerous to recount, but would only confuse all of us.

The play gets its title from one of the seemingly minor twists. A man named Loveless (Mark Lancaster) was once quite the man about town, but he has set aside his old, foolish ways and is now content with the aforementioned virtuous wife. Well, fairly content. His eye still roves. And the beginning of the play finds his eye roving in the direction of his wife’s cousin and confidante, Berinthia (Stephanie Galfano), who is just as attracted to him. Thus the relapse. That’s pretty straightforward. But consider the potential complications when you add a hilarious, foppish neighbor who bought himself a title, and his impoverished younger brother and his manservant, and a matchmaker, and a rich young virgin hidden away in the country, and . . . I get tired just thinking about it all.

I must say that I enjoyed myself, however. Econo-Art has done its homework. The entire ensemble’s vocal technique is impressive, as are the costumes and the staging patterns (though a few of the wigs could use work). Some of the performances are positively first-rate. Marc Silvia is exquisite as Lord Foppington. He prances and cavorts about the stage, at ease even while striding about on the most atrocious platform heels. He is absolutely charming in his sheer idiocy. Paul Myers plays to the hilt the perverted, plague-ridden Coupler, the matchmaker. Covered with lumps and white face powder, Myers slithers through his scenes, wickedly taunting the pretty young boys all the while he’s getting his business affairs in order. Robin Baber is a hoot as Lady Tunbelly Clumsey (this is one innovation–a gender switch), who rules over a country estate that seems to be populated with extras from the movie Deliverance. Hannah Palin as the wife, Galfano as Berinthia, and Virginia Thompson as the young virgin all do solid, engaging work. In fact, the entire ensemble is strong and lively. Director Lynn Baber must be congratulated for the evenness of the production, the energetic staging, and the brisk pace.

But once it was over, I still wondered why they had done it. Was it just to prove that they could, that they’re not just some storefront, off-the-wall theater group but “real” artists who can handle “real” material? Well, they’ve proved it. They can. Very nicely, in fact. Now I hope that they can get that little bee out of their bonnets and move forward . . . without relapses.