Archive for Thursday, March 4, 1999

KU PROFESSOR GIVES HIGH-MINDED SATIRE A NEW TWIST

March 4, 1999

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"The Way of the World," an adaptation of a 17th-century play, centers on schemes to gain money, sexual liaisons and status by deception.

Ron Willis didn't play the part of script doctor last summer when he began adapting William Congreve's classic comedy, "The Way of the World." To be a doctor, something needs a remedy, and Congreve's script was healthy.

Willis approached the 17th-century script from a different angle.

"I did not set out to improve or markedly alter the play, but to make the play accessible and more available to modern audiences," said Willis, a Kansas University theater professor and director of University Theatre's production of "The Way of the World." "What drew me to the play is what I wanted to preserve in the play. ... I was drawn to the high-minded satire."

"The Way of the World," first produced in 1700 in London, is an intelligent, complex comedy filled with social commentary and plots to gain money, sexual liaisons and status by deception.

In adapting the play, Willis went through the script, scene by scene, and offered a modern paraphrase that eliminated or transliterated references that modern-day audiences might not understand.

"I didn't want to make the language slangy or topical," he said. "I kept the eloquent diction without it being alien. ... I tried to divest it of topical references that only students of the Restoration of the 18th century would recognize."

He moved the setting to New York in the 1930s, a time when the socially elite felt threatened and realized they needed to shore up their status and financial standing.

In his script Congreve depicted characters and situations that surrounded him as England entered the 18th century, Willis said.

"They lived through a period of liberation of attitudes, feelings and beliefs around gender identification and relationships between the sexes -- not that it was a return to conservatism," he said.

"And now we're in the throes of a re-examination and taking stock of the things around us. ... The same thing happened in the '20s leading into the '30s. ... It's an examination to deal with things in order to move forward."

In "The Way of the World," Edward Mirabell has set a plan in motion to marry Emma Millimant, the girl of his dreams. He first must convince her aunt to grant permission and he is willing to blackmail her to get his way. However, Millimant is an independent woman who won't give up her personal freedoms to marry Mirabell, even though she loves him.

The plot grows more complicated and convoluted as the action progresses and involves a number of other characters.

"Yet in this milieu, the couple find they love each other, and they find a way to have enough money and preserve their individual freedoms and still become a couple," he said.

Willis said the play features a 15-member cast which will wear dazzling 1930s costumes designed by KU graduate student Bill Nelson. Scenic and lighting design is by KU graduate student Liana White.

-- Jan Biles' phone message number is 832-7146. Her e-mail address is jbiles@ljworld.com.

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