The Woman Hater

Frances Burney
Red Bull Theater

The Woman Hater Credit: Red Bull Theatre

Jesse Berger’s New York-based Red Bull Theater is one of the companies that has most successfully embraced the challenges of lockdown to present a series of excellent rehearsed readings, highlighting a mixture of largely forgotten plays from long ago and modern commentary on Shakespearean themes. The latest offering is that great rarity, a play commenced by an Englishwoman as the 17th century was coming to a close, albeit one never performed in her lifetime.

For a 2½ hour-long live production, director Everett Quinton works with a cast of eight spread across various US locations performing via Zoom, visual designer David M Barber providing attractive period backdrops and Sara Jean Tosetti complementary costumes.

The play moves straight into top gear in the opening scene, as the highly expressive Nick Westrate’s Young Waverly exudes a torrent of sexual frustration directed towards his benefactor and distant kinsman, choleric Sir Roderick played by Matthew Saldivar, a lifelong bachelor and The Woman Hater of the title.

In a rapidly elaborated exposition shared with Arnie Burton as Old Waverly, we discover the reason for the angry old man’s misogyny. This is his jilting by a devotee and patroness of the arts who subsequently became Lady Smatter, soon to appear on the scene in the person of Veanne Cox.

The opening conversation extends, allowing viewers to learn of subsidiary plots involving Sir Roderick’s sister and niece. So angry is Young Waverly at being instructed he can never marry that he vows to wed within a week, his eye caught by the mysterious daughter of a mysterious widow. As an alternative, he can also recognise the competing attraction of marrying a wealthy widow.

From there on, he endures an internal battle between the pursuit of love and money, egged on by a conniving servant, Stephens played by Bill Army, who may be a stock character but still has unusual strength of character. Throw in a couple of anachronistically modern young women (both played by Cherie Corinne Rice) plus numerous mistaken identities and misunderstandings and confusion reigns (multiplied as actors play multiple roles) until almost all loose ends are satisfyingly tied up, as the genre requires.

As is almost inevitable in a comedy of this kind and age, much is formulaic but that does not detract from a great deal of fun in getting to the series of eminently foreseeable partnerships.

Once again, this meticulously prepared production of a play that thoroughly deserves its resurrection will provide much amusement in these straightened times. While all of Red Bull’s worthy online productions are offered free of charge, in order to fund them and keep the company running into the future, viewers are encouraged to make suitably generous donations.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher