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Fans of 18th-century comedy, look out: The University of Vermont Theatre Department is stepping back in time with a production of The Beaux’ Stratagem, opening this week.

Originally written by Irish playwright George Farquhar, the play debuted in London in 1709. It had staying power — 230 years later, the American playwright Thornton Wilder began adapting the work for 20th-century audiences but never finished. Finally, in the early 2000s contemporary writer Ken Ludwig took a stab, and the freshened-up play debuted in 2006.

Why bother adapting such an old comedy? Sarah Carleton, who is directing the UVM production, says restoration comedies “reflected the social customs of the time. They make fun of politics and the social mores of the time.” So it’s easy for references to get lost on modern audiences. This one is written so your average college student can understand it. “It’s fresh, it’s funny, it’s naughty,” she says.

Like a good soap opera, Stratagem’s plot is deliciously complicated. It’s centered around a pair of rakish — and broke — men who embark on a hunt for wealthy wives, whom they plan to wed and then abandon, taking their money with them. “What they seek is fortune and what they get is love in the end,” says Carleton.

There’s a dark side to the comedy, she adds. When Farquhar wrote the play, he was languishing in an unhappy marriage. Right after marrying his wife, whom he had believed to be wealthy, he discovered she was actually in serious arrears. “He spent the last years of his life in an unhappy marriage, paying off her debt,” says Carleton.

And why select this refurbished old play for student actors?

“We live in such uncertain times. There’s so much going on in the world that’s so awful. This play is funny,” Carleton explains. “I think we need to laugh, we need our spirits lifted.”

Oh, and there are swords. And corsets. And a heartwarming conclusion. “This play clearly says you need to find happiness within,” the director concludes, “and be true to yourself.”

The Beaux’ Stratagem, directed by Sarah Carleton, at Royall Tyler Theatre, UVM, in Burlington. February 16 through 18, and 23 through 25, at 7:30 p.m.; February 18 and 26 at 2 p.m. $7-18. Info, 656-2094. uvmtheatre.org

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