The anonymous Elizabethan tragedy from 1592, Arden of Faversham, may just be the English speaking theater’s first true-crime play. It is also one of the first domestic tragedies in drama, unlike Shakespeare’s royal and historic milieu. In addition, literary arguments have been debated over the centuries as to who was likely the author – William Shakespeare, Thomas Kyd or Christopher Marlowe or whether it was a collaboration between several of them – without any consensus.
This rarely presented play has been given a brand new adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher and Kathryn Walat for this Red Bull Theater production. Like Hatcher’s versions of The Alchemist and The Inspector General, the new adaptation is streamlined in language, characters and plot making it more accessible to modern audiences. However, it keeps much of the original language (with a skillful edit) which remains in blank verse and iambic pentameter. In the hands of Jesse Berger’s proficient cast the language is conversational and the meter and rhythm never get in the way. It is a pleasure to experience an unfamiliar Elizabethan drama this way.
The problem with this production is that although the characters’ behavior is utterly outrageous on the verge of satire, Berger has directed in so flat and bland a style that shocking lines that should get embarrassed laughter fail to make any impression. Has Berger directed the play absolutely straight knowing that his audience is unlikely to be familiar with it? It would be more fun and rewarding if was as over-the-top as the murderers’ plotting.
Dour, strict Thomas Arden, the rich merchant of Faversham had made a great many enemies, not the least of which is his wife Alice who had fallen in love with the much younger and handsomer Mosby, a former tailor, now steward to a nobleman. Mosby, on the other hand, is infuriated that Arden scorns him because of his low trade. The Widow Greene is incensed that her lands have been ceded by government decree to Arden leaving her family destitute. Drawn into the plot to kill him are Susan, Mosby’s sister in service to Alice, and her two suitors, Michael, Arden’s servant, and Clarke, a painter. Eventually two hired murderers are on hand, Big Will and Shakebag, both known to the authorities for their nefarious doings. Only Arden’s friend Franklin whose liking seems to go beyond just friendship remains faithful and he almost pays the price for his loyalty.
Aside from the outrageously malevolent plans for Arden’s murder, all of the killers are so inept that it take five acts to finally kill him and the culprits are all caught almost immediately. The production plays down the passion and the blood-thirsty language so that it undercuts the subtext of the play. The actors are all fine as far as they go but this sort of rip-roaring blood and thunder plot needs a good deal more zest and vitality, not such an even-tempered depiction of events. The play is entertaining in its twists and turns and miscarriages of the murder, but it lacks a style that would be in keeping with the audacious text.
Only Veronica Falcón as the bitter and angry Widow Greene has the flair and verve for this play. As snobbish Arden, Thomas Jay Ryan has a wry, ironic air as though he always expects the worst. Both Cara Ricketts as his wife Alice and Tony Roach as her lover Mosby are too bland for their all-consuming passion. Emma Geer as the servant Susan and Mosby’s sister has a confused air about her as though she is not quite sure what the plot over Arden is all about at any given moment. As Arden’s servant Michael, Zachary Fine plays him as though he were a humorous character but does not get his laughs.
Thom Sesma downplays Franklin so that it is not clear that he is supposed to be in love with Arden. David Ryan Smith and Haynes Thigpen play the hired murderers as Keystone Kops but somehow miss the slapstick humor inherent in these roles. Joshua David Robinson plays Clarke, A Ferryman and the Lord Mayor of Faversham pretty much the same way so that if it were for the costume changes one would not know which one he is playing at any given time.
The design team has created a sumptuous though inconsistent production. The unit set by Christopher Swader & Justin Swader creates a very intimate Tudor parlor. However, they have not solved the problem of the outdoor scenes though the smoke effect goes a long way toward helping. Mike Eubanks’ costumes are generally Elizabethan but unaccountably some characters wear contemporary garb. Arden seems to be wearing a contemporary suit and tie and his wife Alice’ second outfit seems to be a modern cocktail dress. However, the characters’ bloodthirsty plotting is so outrageous that it doesn’t seem entirely out of place.
Reza Behjat’s lighting is generally dark without creating a great deal of atmosphere. The sound design by Nina Field & Greg Pliska is usually fine but when the characters speak facing away from the audience it is difficult to catch all the words, while the original music by Pliska was entirely appropriate. The fight and intimacy direction by famed Rick Sordelet was impressively realistic.
While the Red Bull Theater production is to be complimented for upholding its mission of offering rarely seen Elizabethan classic and modern interpretations, it seems a missed opportunity to have presented Arden of Faversham without a suitably high flown style to proximate the outrageousness of the actions on stage. However, as a first viewing of this rarely seen play it is easy to follow, understand and appreciate which is not always the case with revivals of unknown 16th century plays.
Arden of Faversham (through April 1, 2023)
Red Bull Theater by special arrangement with the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, between Bleecker and Hudson Streets, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.ci.ovationtix.com/2722/production/1149077
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes including one intermission