Two of the more important debut shows of the fringe-theater season, The Beaux' Stratagem and Demonology, prove that script is king in theater, and beware the incompetent king. Both shows—Ghost Light's fifth-season opener and the maiden voyage of Hugo House's new resident company Next Stage—are promising in execution, giddily ambitious in spirit, and animated by feminism with a sense of humor. Ghost Light pulls two switcheroos in tackling 29-year-old scamp George Farquhar's 1707 masterpiece, The Beaux' Stratagem. All the actors are women, gracing the stage with that we're-getting-away-with-antipatriarchal-murder gusto that made ACT's The Women so fun (if infinitely glossier). Also, instead of reproducing the multi-ruffled world of Restoration comedy, Steve Cooper sets it in the Roaring '20s. So it's with a Scott-and-Zelda bubbliness that Thomas Aimwell (Liz Moisan) and Francis Archer (Michelle Flowers), young rakes who no doubt drank their savings dry, descend on small-town Lichfield, England. Having blown their fortunes, the two men pretend they're rich to con rich provincial women into marriage. DodiRose Zooropa's costumes sort of split the difference between the centuries, but they do jazz up the actors. The stylin' highwayman Gibbet (Pearl Klein) makes a frogged scarlet jacket go with a three-piece pinstripe suit. Resplendent in a drop-waist dress, Dorinda Bountiful (Daniela Melgar) takes erotic aim at Mr. Aimwell; Mrs. Sullen (Kelly K. Johnson), the trapped wife of the perpetually tipsy Squire Sullen (Becky Chong), targets Mr. Archer, who targets her too. Faithful to the ideal of fidelity, if not to her unloving hubby, Johnson's Mrs. Sullen gives a campy, drag-queenly flourish to the vicissitudes of resisted desire. Farquhar democratically apportions good roles, and some of the smallest shine brightest. Jessica Stepka has a big fat blast as jolly Boniface, the landlord who force-feeds the bachelors ale and schemes to grab their cash. Melissa Fenwick romps as Scrub, the dim servant to the Sullens who gets the play's most famous line: "I believe they talked of me, for they laughed consumedly." I didn't laugh consumedly at Ghost Light's show, but I smiled often enough. Farquhar's quip-fencing is pleasant, though less sharp than Restoration wits Congreve or Wycherley. The plot is higgledy-piggledy, perhaps because sickly Farquhar penned it in a few weeks on his deathbed to make money for his widow and dropped dead soon after opening night. Still, it's an entertaining jumble of stratagems: conniving courtships, eavesdropping intrigues, and everybody out to rob everybody blind; all is sorted out in the end by the blind boy Cupid's mischief and a deus ex machina or two. Somehow Farquhar makes it all seem sweet-natured, as if nothing about life could seem bitter to a dying man who knew he wouldn't turn 30. Romantic deceit and self-deception evidently amused him. What struck me as the most contrived turnabout—one of the lovers discovers her swain is a lying swine, yet forgives and marries him—actually happened to Farquhar. His fiancee had claimed to be rich, in fact impoverished him, and he loved her anyway. For life. There's life in this show, even though the reach of the play's wordplay and multiple accents (including an Irishman masquerading as a Frenchman) exceeds the grasp of much of the cast. It's such a ripping yarn, with the extra kick of cross-dressed stars, that we don't mind the bumpy unevenness. Often, Restoration comedy revivals aspire to the period-perfect perfection of Pol Roger in cut-glass crystal. This one goes for a cheap bathtub-gin buzz. Worked for me. Next Stage's Demonology is a smoother ride. Michael Mowrey's coolly gleaming set provides a sleek contrast to Ghost Light's funky minimalism—it looks like the set of The Office, only the lighting fixtures resemble abstracted breasts. The cast is more polished than Ghost Light's, director Mark Jared Zufelt imposes a firmer sense of pacing, and the comedy provokes more laughs. Brendan Hogan's sound design struck just the right note from the play's first moment: Ozzy Osbourne's "Paranoid" performed as an old-school Muzak instrumental for drippy strings. Perfect for a play about the paranoia that lurks within the tastelessly denatured corporate world. But the show did not work for me, because the script is so weak as to seem wispily unfinished. Kelly Stuart won big prizes for writing Demonology, produced with Hollywood stars at important theaters in New York and L.A. In 1996, her satire of the rising business culture felt fresh. Bizworld seemed invincible then, with its cynical imbecile jargon, electronic employee surveillance, and cloaked viciousness. Probably it's even worse now that business is bust and we'll all starve, but its sins are familiar—a barn door, not a satirical target. And Stuart's feminist critique feels clichéd. Gina (Maggie Brothers) is a nursing mother who supports her baby by working as a temp at a company that makes baby formula. She can deal with the office lech, Skip (Ben Harris), who keeps dropping ultradumb double entendres: "I've heard she takes excellent dick-tation...My computer seems to go down a lot lately...What's the difference between pussy and sushi? Sushi comes with rice." He's like a Neil LaBute character's moronic kid brother. This stuff she can smile right through. Her problem is the boss, Joe DiMartini (Alex Samuels). The idea that Gina must regularly express milk to take home to her child makes Joe go psycho. He starts out a stiff and proper guy, natty in a cigarette-thin suit like Rod Serling's, and pretty soon he's a helpless mess, slurping and burping Gina's milk the minute she leaves the room to express more. Brothers and Samuels execute their mental combat with skill. She's admirably patient and sane in the scenes in which Joe keeps a lid on his obsession, and skanky-slinky when she becomes his hallucinated temptress, Xena. Samuels does a fine tight-ass exec, flusters well when he senses Gina's nipples leak, and freaks out ably, egged on by a second hallucinated female, the pigtailed demon cheerleader Child Assassin (Teri Lazzara). But that's all that happens. In the slow-bubbling stew that is Stuart's plot, bits float up only to disappear without a trace. Gina has an unseen office rival, Veronica, and a shiftless pothead househusband. The company's formula once poisoned hundreds of babies. Nothing comes of these narrative dead ends. Many scenes work as skits, but the skits don't add up to ongoing action. As Joe gets crazier, the playwriting gets daydreamier. It was daydreamy enough to begin with. And the male boss gets the best lines. Brothers vaguely resembles Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and she reminds me of that actress mired on the aimless SNL, awaiting a Seinfeld to unleash her comic genius. If you cherish political theater as I don't, you'll react better to Demonology. It does have resonant moments, and its Northwest premiere has historical importance. But Next Stage's true importance belongs to the future. What's onstage dwarfs the achievement of what's on the page in this show. They've just begun two years in residence at Hugo House. I do expect to see better from them. email@example.com
The Beaux' Stratagem TPS Theatre4, Seattle Center House, 800-838-3006, www.brownpapertickets.com. $10–$12. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.–Fri., plus 7:30 p.m. Sat., April 19 & 2 p.m. Sun., April 20. Ends April 20.
Demonology Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave., 800-838-3006, www.nextstage.org. $12–$17. 8 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends April 20.