Fops, Rakes, and Bimbos 

CalShakes' Restoration Comedy combines Love's Last Shift and The Relapse into fun, witty, sparkling romance.

Straddling the line between arousing audiences and lecturing them on virtue, actor and playwright Colley Cibber's 1696 farce Love's Last Shift proved clumsy. The story of John Loveless, a wayward husband who is brought to heel when his prissy wife Amanda learns to act the strumpet, ends with Loveless' sudden and dramatic reformation.

That didn't satisfy another playwright, John Vanbrugh, who thought the climax silly and unbelievable. So in six weeks he wrote a more realistic sequel, The Relapse, wherein Loveless backslides and Amanda's virtue is tested by the arrival of a new suitor. If Cibber minded that someone else had taken his idea and upended it, he made no mention of it, perhaps because a part he'd written for himself in the first play — Sir Novelty Fashion — was expanded into the scene-stealing Lord Foppington in the second. In any case, The Relapse has proven the more durable of the two, and is still one of the most oft-performed Restoration comedies, while Love's Last Shift was mostly forgotten.

At least until playwright Amy Freed (The Beard of Avon) got hold of both works, and saw the potential for something both incisive and deliriously sugar-frosted. She streamlined the two plays into one that focuses squarely on the virtuous Amanda, and replaced the dated dialogue with her own wit. Now in the hands of former Berkeley Rep artistic director Sharon Ott and a delightful CalShakes cast, Restoration Comedy is a confection that questions devotion, fidelity, and how our self-perception keeps us from truly fulfilling relationships.

Amanda's a babe, but she whinges on so about virtue that it makes sense that rascally John fled to the Continent ten years before the play opens. Upon hearing of her death, he deems it safe to return to London, and his wicked ways. Problem is, Amanda isn't dead — and she's determined to win back her husband. So she enlists his friend Worthy to train her in the fine art of mistressry, and pulls a perfect Shakespearean bed trick to bring John home. It works — briefly. But, as Vanbrugh understood, John has "eyes that celebrate the variety of God's creation," and they soon enough fall on another woman.

Freed keeps what works — the heightened language, the situations, a bit of verse, the costumes. ("Let's be honest," Elijah Alexander tells us in the prologue, before assuming the Loveless character, "we're doing this just so we could wear the clothes.") The play is full of in-jokes, from the repeated breaking of the fourth wall to the point where someone calls one of Ron Campbell's characters a Scheherazade, which is funny if you saw Campbell play the Scheherazadian Guy de Bonheur in Aurora's Thousandth Night. While the swordfight between Loveless and Foppington is gone, there is a consolation fan fight between Amanda and Narcissa, plenty of scenes where people swoon into each other's arms, and a spirit of merry mayhem that flags only briefly in the second act. The actors seem to be trying to outdo each other to have the best time, whether it's Bhama Roget playing two completely different bimbos as Narcissa and Hoyden, the reliably hilarious Sharon Lockwood describing how nature "opens her beauties up for inspection" by "hairy-legged bumblebees," or the friends Loveless and Worthy (Elijah Alexander and Kaleo Griffith) trying to outhunk each other. As the one innocent, Caralyn Kozlowski's Amanda is tastefully portrayed.

Hugh Landwehr's set is simple, probably to better show off the costumes: oversized black and white engravings, understated period furniture, cut-out panoramas of London and the countryside. Meanwhile one item sums up Anna Oliver's costumes: a wig that is keeping Danny Scheie's chiropractor in business, flowing from at least two feet above the actor's head to the ground. In Vanbrugh's original, the wig was brought in its own sedan chair. Here, it has its own garage, only fitting for the self-styled "king of feeyashion" Sir Novelty Fashion/Lord Foppington.

Restoration Comedy is a witty and sparkling romance, sprinkled with anachronistic touches that make it more fun — a glimpse of a character's Hilfiger boxers, a Jimmy Carter reference, a fashionista wearing a headset. It may be set in the 17th century, but it's tailor-made for the 21st.

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