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theatre review

Lucy Peacock as Mrs. Dorothy Hardcastle and Sara Farb as Miss Constance Neville in a scene from She Stoops to ConquerDavid Hou

Three cheers to Joseph Ziegler on his return to the classics on the main stages of the Stratford Festival – a return nearly three decades in the making.

There are few actors who can make good-natured characters as fascinating or funny as Ziegler, who has of late been seen primarily at the Toronto company he co-founded, Soulpepper. The owl-eyed thespian is open and generous to the men he plays, and open and generous to the audience.

In an essentially kind-hearted play like Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, that kind of performance is crucial connective tissue – and, indeed, Ziegler's hilarious and heart-warming turn as bewigged, bothered and bewildered Mr. Hardcastle, a country gentleman mistaken for an innkeeper, truly ties the show together.

She Stoops to Conquer – which is getting a congenial production from director Martha Henry, uneven only in its comic impact – tells the story of two London men who head out into the country in search of the women they will wed.

It resembles the Restoration comedy The Beaux' Stratagem, presented at Stratford last season, in that but little else. London audience tastes changed between 1707 and 1773 – and Goldsmith's comedy is considerably less cynical about romance and explicitly anti-elitist.

Charles Marlow (an exceptional Brad Hodder) – a gentleman extremely nervous around upper-class women and overly familiar with lower-class women – and his friend George Hastings (Tyrone Savage) are on their way to the home of the Hardcastles. Charles is being set up with Mr Hardcastle's daughter Kate (Maev Beaty) by his own father, while Hastings plans to elope with Kate's cousin Constance (Sara Farb).

Stopping at a bar along the way, however, Charles and George encounter Tony Lumpkin (Karack Osborn) – the spoiled and resentful stepson of Mr. Hardcastle – who tricks them into thinking that the Hardcastles' ramshackle country mansion is actually an inn. And so Goldsmith's comic trap is sprung: Charles barges into the home of Mr. Hardcastle behaving like he owns the place, shocking Mr. Hardcastle – who tolerates his impudence with decreasing patience.

Meanwhile, Kate – who quickly figures out the con – disguises herself as a maid in order to get close to Charles and see what he is like when he's relaxed. Charles is an exceptionally difficult part to play – a comedic Jekyll and Hyde, but Hodder is pitch-perfect in the role, finding just the right level of smug and superior when talking to the disguised Kate, and pathetically panicky when she appears as herself. A scene where he suddenly becomes self-conscious of his hands is terrifically funny – and touching, too. (Beaty is a little bland when she has to play proper Kate, but does indeed conquer, comedically, when she stoops.)

Written 300 years ago, Goldsmith's satire on male insecurity seems light-years ahead of all today's think pieces asking why so many powerful women have trouble finding mates. He gets the question right – what is it that men find terrifying about women they don't have economic power over?

Henry's production fails to fully explore these gender politics, alas – even though they also run through the subplot, where Constance refuses to run away with Hastings until she secures a casket of gems. Here, Constance and Mrs. Hardcastle's battle over jewellery is largely played for laughs – laughs that don't come because their motivations seem so slight. Farb and Lucy Peacock, as Mrs. Hardcastle, sacrifice character comedy, based in a real struggle of women wanting to maintain an ounce of power, for superficial screams or shudders.

Henry's She Stoops to Conquer is fully in sync with the anti-elitist spirit of the play, however. At first a trio of servants played by André Morin, Gareth Potter and Paul Rowe seem to be little more than stage dressing, but they all emerge as individuals to share the funniest scene with Ziegler – an uproarious attempt by Mr. Hardcastle to teach his country servants how to entertain London guests that sends up his manners as much as theirs. (The servants, like Charles and amateur actors, aren't sure what to do with their hands.)

There's another brilliant bit of staging where Pimple, Kate's maid played by Lally Cadeau, can't disguise her disgust at her mistress's idea of how a maid moves and talks when she dons her disguise. "Don't you think I look something like Cherry in The Beaux' Stratagem?" Kate asks her – and Pimple nods very, very professionally. (That's Goldsmith's own joke, by the way, not one added in by Stratford – besides, it was Farb who played Cherry last season.)

Having seen a fair bit of undistinguished crowd work at Stratford so far this season, I was delighted to see a production where everybody on stage has a character and reason to be there whether they're speaking or not – kudos to director Henry, part of the Festival since 1962, who knows that "there are no small parts" is not just a line to comfort actors.