Pangallo ’03 directs 17th-century comedy ‘Swaggering Damsel’
An uproarious 17th-century comedy that explores issues of marriage and gender while satirizing theatrical conventions of its time, The Swaggering Damsel appears in Bates College performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, March 21-23, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 24, in Gannett Theater, 305 College St.
Admission is free, but reservations are recommended. For more information, please call 207-786-6161.
A play marked by “cross-dressing, sexual shenanigans, uppity servants and witty women,” in the words of one scholar, English playwright Robert Chamberlain’s 1640 The Swaggering Damsel reflects the preoccupations of a nation transitioning from a royal to a mercantile society.
Plotlines explore the financial, moral and social conditions that encumbered romance and marriage in Chamberlain’s time. The primary plot concerns a pair of lovers, Sabina and Valentine, whose affair encounters a series of roadblocks that they can overcome only after each has spent some time in the other’s shoes.
Portraying Valentine is Gunnar Manchester, a sophomore from Rehoboth, Mass. Sabina is played by Sarah Weinshal, a first-year student from Westport, Conn. All told, 10 Bates students are performing in the piece and one serves as stage manager.
The play has been performed rarely, if at all, since the 17th century, says director Matteo Pangallo, a visiting assistant professor of English and member of the Bates class of 2003. “This is a rediscovery” akin to a world premiere, he says.
Chamberlain was an amateur playwright, so Swaggering Damsel has always been a play peripheral to the theatrical and scholarly canon, Pangallo explains. “Chamberlain’s profession was joke-book writing, and Swaggering Damsel is a joke in five acts.”
He continues, “If we look at other romantic comedies from that period, we’ll get a sense of what the professional theater industry thought the audience wanted.” But Swaggering Damsel, instead, directly reflects the interests and perspective of an audience member.
“It’s not a conventional English Renaissance comedy,” Pangallo says. “Instead, it seems to lampoon and mock all the character types and clichéd plot twists that the theater of that era was churning out en masse.”
The Bates production jacks that tendency up a notch, reveling in an over-the-top theatricality. “We place a great deal of emphasis on the fact that these are actors taking on roles, and their roles are exaggerated,” says Pangallo.
Valentine is a parody of traditional romantic heroes (to the extent that he shares a name, as well as some plot points, with a character in Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona — produced at Bates just weeks before Damsel).
“Valentine’s speeches are way overblown, he spouts really bad poetry that he thinks is good poetry, he threatens to kill himself because he can’t have the woman of his dreams. All the characters on stage know that he is ridiculous, and the audience knows too.”
For the student performers and audiences alike, Pangallo says, The Swaggering Damsel offers a fresh take on a theatrical era dominated by Shakespeare — who, he points out, was in many ways atypical of English Renaissance playwrights.
“When you’re playing Hamlet, and you get to the ‘to be or not to be’ speech, you look out into the audience and see all the mouths flapping because everybody is saying it along with you. And the degree of pressure that creates to do something new can sometimes have negative effects on actors, because they start pursuing novelty for the sake of novelty.
“You don’t have that when you do a production of The Swaggering Damsel because it is novel. Its freshness, I think, is a virtue.”