The sublime Amy Freed's latest play, the classically styled Restoration Comedy, represents a happy confluence of local and formerly local theatre artists. San Franciscan Freed was once an American Conservatory Theater acting student who performed locally; now she teaches acting at Stanford. The play's director, Sharon Ott, was the longtime artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre; Ott worked with Freed during the play's development process and premiered the play at Seattle Repertory Theatre when she was artistic director there. Jonathan Moscone, who once interned at the Rep under Ott, runs California Shakespeare Theatre, where the comedy is currently receiving an absolutely hilarious Bay Area premiere on the stage of the outdoor amphitheatre. All this is to say that the opening night felt like a homecoming, and a rapturous one at that.
Freed conflated -- and then liberally rewrote -- two Restoration-era (1696) comedies: Colley Cibber's Love's Last Shift and its sequel, John Vanbrugh's The Relapse. Both are bawdy comedies following the adventures of the rakish John Loveless (Elijah Alexander) and his virtuous wife, Amanda (Caralyn Kozlowski). Freed has freewheeling fun with the genre, crafting a comedy in which Loveless, an unrepentant sex addict, is reformed in Act I when his prudish wife disguises herself as a "big slut," as she puts it, and seduces him. Fidelity, he decides, is the last remaining novelty in his promiscuous lifestyle -- and besides, Amanda has overcome her virginal prissiness quite nicely, thank you. But in Act II, tracing the outlines of Vanbrugh's follow-up, Loveless is sorely tempted by his wife's comely and flirtatious cousin (Marcia Pizzo) and backslides. Meanwhile, Loveless' best friend, the worthy Ned Worthy (Kaleo Griffith), is in love with steadfast Amanda.
Freed's only misstep is toward the end, when Amanda spies on her husband madly shagging her cousin, is overcome with confusion and ambivalence, and rejects the advances of Ned Worthy, whom she's loved, in fact, all along. Her reasons for doing so are too flimsy to even be funny, and Freed rushes through Amanda's internal conflict so quickly that she cheats her heroine -- and us -- of a potentially poignant and satisfying climax. Aside from that, this is a witty, verbally juicy script that's sprinkled with just the right number of asides, anachronisms, and rhymed couplets; that's full of funny characters; and that moves along at an engaging clip on Hugh Landwehr's set, an amusing composition of black and white cutouts that roll conveniently in and out.
And Ott and her cast, several of whom were in the original Seattle production, are endlessly inventive, mining every comic nuance and displaying a killer instinct for timing. It's a knockout ensemble, with especially brilliant comic turns by Ron Campbell, Sharon Lockwood, and Bhama Roget in multiple roles; and Danny Scheie as the terminally narcissistic Lord Foppington (earlier Sir Novelty Fashion), resplendent in a twin-towered, floor-length, curly powdered wig that defies description. The dazzling, over the top costumes by Anna R. Oliver perfectly suit the show's wicked hilarity.
Restoration Comedy runs July 5-30 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd., Orinda, Calif. Tickets: (510) 548-9666. Website: www.calshakes.org.