We all fall in love for different reasons. It may be a natural connection, fiery lust, or simply due to economical reasons. It might be that love is a game, a gamble for bravery and a longing for status. But what happens when too many players enter the realm of financial gain?
The Shaw Festival brings all of this to the stage with W.S. Gilbert's burlesque comedy Engaged. When the play originally premiered in 1877, Gilbert's main target was to satirize the Victorian obsession with wealth and gain. Marrying for money was all the rage, but it reached much farther than personal interest – it was a family business. Although a 19th century piece, the play remains ultimately timeless to this day.
The play opens near the small border town of Gretna Green, Scotland. The locals of this town frequently derail the major express trains passing through to England, only to have the passengers frequent their cottages at a price.
In their ever-thick Scottish accents, Maggie Mcfarlane (Julia Course) accepts Angus Macalister's (Martin Happer) courting amidst the new onslaught of passengers making their way to lodge. Throughout the mix of it all, Belvawney (Jeff Meadows) devises a plan to prevent Belinda Treherne (Nicole Underhay) from marrying the stout Major McGillicuddy (Ric Reid), all in an attempt to secure her fortune. As a farcical commentary on wealth, Belvawney has been glamorously paid by Cheviot Hill's (Gray Powell) father to dissuade the promiscuous Cheviot from marrying.
Throughout the first act, Cheviot agrees to marry Mr. Symperson's (Shawn Wright) daughter, while falling for Maggie and Belinda, in addition to the old Mrs. Mcfarlane (Mary Haney). As the clock ticks against the arrival of Belinda's future husband, Cheviot and Belinda marry on the spot to save Belinda from her impending doom. The curtain drops on the first act and the two do not meet again until the second act.
Whereas the ostentatious Victorian rhetoric can be enough to confuse, the bright, charming characters carry the production through to fruition. The love lines become increasingly intermingled as the melange of characters find themselves in the drawing room of Mr. Symperson's house in London. The golden comedy captured throughout the play can only be attributed to the genius writing of W.S. Gilbert, paired with Morris Panych's outstanding flow and direction of the complex piece.
The vernacular remains Victorian, but the production's design evokes a hybrid of composition and style. Ken MacDonald's set design is fanciful and grandiose. Audiences are both immersed and overtaken by the imposing thistles of the Scottish landscape, only to be transported into the blissful, majestic florality of Mr. Symperson's London flat. Charlotte Dean's costume design happily embellishes the flavour of elite pizzazz among a mix of faded and current garb.
The play becomes easy to follow because you empathize with the characters. You want to know where the Mcfarlane house lies, who will fall for whom, and how the entire ensemble resolves itself in the end. But to fully embrace the elaborate plot and gorgeous display of romantic comedy, you will simply have to witness it for yourself.
Engaged runs at the Royal George Theatre, as part of the Shaw Festival, until Oct. 30. For more information, visit www.shawfest.com.