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A CurtainUp Review

By Brad Bradley

Cailin Muelder, Jeremy Shamos and
Nicole Lowrance
Cailin Muelder, Jeremy Shamos and Nicole Lowrance
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein )
Engaged, while penned well over a century ago by W. S. Gilbert, the man who became the very well known wordsmith of the operetta team of Gilbert and Sullivan, nevertheless has had negligible exposure compared to Gilbert's work as a musical collaborator. Inevitably this curious play has been compared to the much-better-known (and better constructed) late Victorian comedy of manners, Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which first appeared about 18 years later.

Some of Gilbert's contemporary critics suggested that Engaged was too bitter a pill for audiences, although perhaps the public of today faces an even greater challenge with the material's supremely foolish complications rather than the bitter pill of social criticism. Sorting out the plot is a major challenge, although Gilbert does draw sharp satiric attention to class, gender and cultural differences, among other universal issues.

The play begins as a sweetly innocent Scottish couple, Angus and Maggie, have an over-the-top comical confession of their mutual attraction, although in rather formal language for such apparently common folk. Angus, a seeming innocent who has "loved her these 15 years," tarnishes a bit his image as a charming romantic when ge admits to poaching and upsetting railway trains to draw commerce to the area.

Another couple, the first victims of Angus's train derailment, is clearly English rather than Scottish. This seemingly prosperous couple, Belvawney and Belinda, are also in high courtship, although Belinda confesses serious concern about her suitor's weak "pecuniary position." He, while seeming honorable, is dressed totally in black, suggesting a classic villain, although his character gives no such indications.

The next entrant, Cheviot Hill, turns out to be the play's leading man; he has been traveling on the same train with a Mr. Symperson, who turns out to be his fiancée's father. Symperson, however, is referred to as Cheviot's uncle, allowing the audience some confusion. Also challenging clarity are complicated details about Cheviot's finances that note that whenever he marries, there will be financial impacts upon both Symperson (who gains) and Belvawney (who loses). Belvawney apparently has been entrusted with legal/financial responsibilities for Cheviot not unlike those of a guardian, yet the program lists him as "Cheviot's friend." Anyone who absorbs all of this without prior knowledge of the script deserves a medal.

More apparent plot elements quickly reveal Cheviot as a man who can resist no female he encounters. He makes advances, even proposals, to both innocent Maggie and grand Belinda within a matter of minutes. No matter that Maggie already is engaged to Angus and Belinda to his own "friend", Belvawney! No matter either that Cheviot already has made a similar understanding with Symperson's daughter, Minnie, although we don't get to meet her until after the first intermission.

Our apparently irresistible rogue, still single at 32, finds that the "Scotch marriage" legal implications of his amorous involvements on the rustic border of England and Scotland will augment in several ways the tangles of money and class tangle with romance. When Minnie, Cheviot's original intended, finally appears in her father's drawing room at the start of Act II, she is in her bridal gown ready for her long-planned marriage to Cheviot, apparently having learned nothing of what transpired (in Act I) three months earlier. We quickly learn of her own vanity ("Am I really, really beautiful?") and of another weakness of her intended husband: He is undeniably stingy. Enter Belinda, the ready bride's old friend, who has yet to advise Minnie of her own dalliance with (and engagement to!) Cheviot. This becomes one of the play's funniest scenes, as Belinda, apparently unable to resist either her craving of sweets or her verbosity, continues her spitfire delivery while wolfing down Minnie's wedding refreshments. Minnie, ever the supremely polite lady, tries repeated approaches to move the sweets out of Belinda's remarkable range.

Gilbert's wit holds up quite well, warranting it a place in the canon of complicated comedies alongside those of Congreve, among others. His comment that marriage "is like an endless lawsuit - once in it, you can't get out" is a good example of his way with words that still pleases audiences.

The mostly winning cast is adept at both farce and the presentational style often required, with Jeremy Shamos (Cheviot), Nicole Lowrance (Minnie) and Caitlin Muelder (Belinda) taking top honors. As Belvawney, John Christiopher Jones seems a curious bit of casting, for he registers more as an overstuffed satanic poet than a romantic rival, friend, or even guardian. Although his formal and ghoulish black attire may have historical validity, it obscures his function as a central player in this unlikely serial romance. In lesser roles, all the "lowland" folk are delightful, including Sloane Shelton as the widow Macfarlane, Maggie Lacey as her daughter (the character also known as Maggie), and especially David Don Miller as Angus, the strong but gentle Scottish ox.

While Doug Hughes' direction adds potential to the future of Engaged, it does not solve the considerable problems that the intensely complicated plot presents. Scenic designer John Lee Beatty has done a fine job of richly conveying both the bucolic Scottish exterior and the ornamented London drawing room needed, and Catherine Zuber's spirited costumes are a festive treat.


Written by W. S. Gilbert
Directed by Doug Hughes
Cast: Danielle Ferland, James Gale, John Horton, John Christopher Jones, Maggie Lacey, Nicole Lowrance, David Don Miller, Caitlin Muelder, Jeremy Shamos, and Sloane Shelton.
Set Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design: Rui Rita
Sound Design: Aural Fixation
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including two intermissions.
Theatre for a New Audience atLucille Lortel Theatre, Christopher Street, Greenwich Village (east of Hudson Street).
4/20/04 to 5/23/04; opening 4/29/04 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, 212/239/6200
Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 3:00pm.
Tickets $60 ( $375 per act for divorce lawyers)--Reserved price youth tickets at $10 for ages 25 or under may be purchased for any performance -- both day of and in advance -- at the Lortel during all box office hours.
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