Between 1935 and 1972, author Georgette Heyer wrote 24 romance novels set during Great Britain's Regency period. Despite being very commercially successful in their time, Heyer's books are largely overlooked today. At Lifeline Theatre, which specializes in adapting literary works for the stage, Heyer's works have found a second life. Sylvester is the fourth Heyer project adapted by Christina Calvit and directed by Dorothy Milne.
Their high-concept staging pokes fun at highs and lows of the "game of love", placing this classic romance directly onto a massive 3-D game of chutes and ladders, courtesy of scenic designer Alan Donahue. The players in this game are Phoebe (Samantha Newcomb), a headstrong girl who writes scandalous novels under a nom de plume, and Sylvester (Andrés Enriquez), a standoffish duke whose arrogance hides a secret sadness. To nobody's surprise, these two fail to hit it off — at least until fate traps them together in a snowbound provincial inn, where they have nothing to do but play whist and develop (and deny) their feelings for each other. Eventually, their madcap courtship takes them from country estates to London society and across the English channel, with every scene bringing more romantic entanglement. There are enough disapproving stepmothers, drawing-room confessions, and sudden changes of fortune to make any lover of Regency romance happy.
For audience members not already inclined toward the genre, though, Sylvester is a tougher sell. While Milne's playful staging is brisk and stuffed with visual comedy, the madcap pace wears thin by the end of its two-hour runtime, and some of the twists and turns to the story can be hard to follow. An investment in the main characters' inevitable pairing is, at times, the only thing keeping the play afloat.
Luckily, Enriquez and Newcomb share a warm chemistry and sharp timing as they snipe and smolder, making them easy to root for. Enriquez in particular adds tenderness and depth to the role of the aloof Duke. Newcomb is well-cast as the spirited Phoebe, with an energy that makes the most of the production's playground sensibilities. Highlights from the supporting cast include Terry Bell, who is thoroughly charming as Phoebe's staunch companion Thomas Orde, and Katherine Hildreth as Sylvester's excitable godmother.
The ensemble is dressed by designer Rachel Sypniewski in youthful costumes that match the tone of the play. The women wear tunics and leggings, men don jeans, and everybody wears sneakers. The occasional addition of period-specific pieces like spencers and cravats is suitably romantic, but the combination of modern and Regency silhouettes is not very flattering to the performers. Alan Donahue's whimsical set design is part playground and part board game, providing ample opportunity for acrobatic entrances and quick scene changes.
Georgette Heyer knew how to write a compelling period romance, and she got all of the beats just right. Though some of the subtlety is lost in translation, the Lifeline Theatre adaptation wins more than it loses, and by the final round, Sylvester delivers a romantic resolution that makes the game worth playing.
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