The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret

by Robert Bullen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday August 16, 2009

The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret

The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret is a 300 year-old farce by Susanna Centlivre. Despite its age, it still delights, mostly due to Centlivre boldly placing the bulk of the action in the hands of two headstrong women - a rarity in 18th century playwriting.

And with a mostly able cast to deliver the rapid-fire, tongue-twisting text, this rarely performed classic is receiving a charming, intimate staging by the Point of Contention Theatre Company at the BoHo Theatre in Rogers Park.

The Wonder, which is set in colonial Brazil in the early 19th century, follows the antics of Violante (Megan Faye Schutt), who has promised to conceal her friend Isabella (Lisa Siciliano) who has escaped from her tyrannical father as he is set to arrange Isabella with an undesirable husband. While in hiding, Isabella is heavily pursued by a randy English Colonel (Sean Patrick Ward) who happened to catch Isabella when she jumped out a window during her escape.

In attempting to manage this chaos, Violante constructs a web of lies, resulting in the orchestration of multiple closets filled with potential suitors and horny serving maids - and, in the process, nearly sabotaging her own relationship with suitor Don Felix (Jason Nykiel).

I have to admit it took me about 20 minutes or so before I gained traction on the deft plotline. Due to the period dialogue and frenzied exposition, I literally had to take notes to keep up on who was who (and who was pursuing whom). However, about halfway into the second act, the play found its pace, and I was able to simply watch the frenzy unfold.

As it's a farce, the slamming of doors (there are eight of them in this compact set), concealing of identities and stammering for explanations comes with the territory. And under Margo Gray's physically tight (if somewhat tonally unfocused) direction, the cast keeps things moving at a brisk pace, minimizing the overlong 2.5 hour running time.

As Violante, Schutt is tasked with managing the harried action while keeping a composed façade. It's an admirable performance of a difficult and pivotal role. As her suitor, the appealing Nykiel doesn't quite match her level, giving line readings that are simply that: line readings. Siciliano excels as the insanely love-struck Isabella with gangling charm and a winning smile.

However, in my mind, the show really belongs to the secondary characters: i.e. the servants. Most notably Justin Warren as Lissardo, Hayley L. Rice as Flora and Eric S. Prahl as Gibby -- "the oddly placed Scotsman." All three demonstrated confidence in the material through solid comic timing and adept physicality.

Jeff McLane as Isabella's domineering father seemed to arrive from another show with his broad, cartoonish characterization. This could easily be a misstep, but I have to admit I found him highly amusing - as did the audience - so what's the harm in that? And as Isabella's suitor Colonel Britton, Sean Patrick Ward is perfectly cast, with confidence, poise and smugness to last for days.

Finally, Carrie Hardin's uneven costumes are only slightly distracting, with the woman's flirty ensembles faring much better than the men who seemed arrive from a cubicle job. Brandon Baisden's excellent samba-inspired sound design helps maintain a fresh, festive atmosphere.

The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret is running through August 26, Mondays through Wednesdays, at the BoHo Theatre in Rogers Park. For more information, visit www.pointofcontention.org

A native midwesterner, Robert is a self-confessed Chicago theatre addict. You can read more about his addiction at chitheatreaddict.com