By Marilyn Lester . . .
Don’t delay! You have only a couple of weeks to see The Red Bull Theater’s delightful “Shakespeare light” production of Arden of Faversham. This “true crime thriller of bloody, darkly comic Elizabethan noir,” a “based on a true story” epic, packs a lot of punch in its two hours of thrills, with concise and accessible narrative and fast-moving action. That’s thanks to director Jesse Berger, who keeps the pace swift, deftly handling his actors with a facile, crisp choreography of movement and creatively clever bits of business.
The Tragedy of Master Arden of Feversham (eventually becoming Faversham) was published anonymously in 1592, although it may have been written and performed even before that. (Scholars are still trying to figure out who wrote it, with some suspicion falling on the Bard.) For the Red Bull’s production, Jeffrey Hatcher and Kathryn Walat have taken the somewhat cumbersome six-act original and adapted it into a smart, lightly modernized two-act comedy-drama that still cleaves true to the original. There’s mainly feminist updating that strengthens motivation and another that adds a female character to the proceedings—Greene, originally a man reduced to poverty through dealings with Arden, becomes an impoverished widow and mother who elicits sympathy from his wife, Alice.
This Arden of Faversham remains the scandalous, sensationalist comedy-drama it was intended to be. The play is an Elizabethan “domestic drama,” one of the pulp fiction melodramas that delighted in featuring women as murderers—audiences of the era ate up seeing females acting in decidedly unfeminine ways. In Alice Arden they got their fill. Ironically, often referred to as “Sweet Alice” throughout this production, her crafty manipulations, boldness and machinations are salaciously lust-driven. Played to perfection by Cara Ricketts, the self-serving plotting and planning of her husband’s murder is fully embraced in her nuanced performance. Ricketts handles the anomaly of the devoted wife, switching to the erotically-driven adulteress with delicious duplicity. The object of her unfaithful affection is Richard Mosby, a tailor much below Alice’s station, played by Tony Roach, whom she entices into her murder plot. At first a swaggering matinee idol type, he soon is not so sure of himself as the scheme to get rid of Arden begins to crumble.
What of Arden? Is he that much a stinker? In reality, as in the play, Thomas Arden had grown wealthy trading in the vast amounts of real estate that became available when Henry VIII dissolved Catholic monasteries during the Protestant Reformation. By all accounts, he was a ruthless SOB. Arden’s land grab yields others only too willing to see him dead—the widow Greene, for instance. Veronica Falcón portrays her with fierce intensity; the single flaw in her performance is a thick accent that interferes with understanding some lines.
In truth, the affair between Alice and Mosby was an open secret, but for dramatic purposes only a suspicion in the play, allowing Alice and Mosby to develop an elaborate series of plots designed to kill Arden. Thomas Jay Ryan’s Arden hits just the right notes of suspicion, as well as contrasting emotions of love for “Sweet Alice” and mistrust of her. His best friend and companion, Franklin, played with strength and conviction by Thom Sesma, fiercely has his friend’s back, presenting a hint of homo-erotic possibility. By contrast, Alice’s sidekick and ally, her maid, Susan, Mosby’s sister, impeccably played by Emma Geer, is manipulated and motivated solely by love of Arden’s manservant, Michael, who returns her love, and the prospect of marriage. Michael is thus lured into helping in the murder plot. Zachary Fine excels as this hapless man caught in the middle. He has an incredibly expressive face, matched in eloquent movement, very reminiscent of movie icon Buster Keaton’s excellent work.
The plot gets right to the point—and the comedy comes in with the multiple (failed) attempts to dispatch Arden: poisoned soup, multiple ambushes, a poisoned painting that kills at a look, a poisoned crucifix and home invasions. Clarke, a painter, unnecessarily played in too-gay fashion by Joshua David Robinson, an expert in poisons, is very happy to supply them for their lethal purpose (Robinson also plays a Ferryman and the Lord Mayor of Faversham in straight-ahead portrayals.). Two vaudevillian stock characters of the Elizabethan era, bumbling thugs Black Will and Shakebag, prove experts in their various acts of ineptitude. They are played respectively by David Ryan Smith and Haynes Thigpen who embrace their incompetence with full out glee. This maladroit pair keep at it though, as Arden continues to escape death by sheer dumb luck. Finally, in a plot twist worthy of Agatha Christie, as all converge at Arden hall, the deed is done. Now, to find out how these murderers paid for their crimes, go to see this terrific production of Arden of Faversham without delay. It’s a great, classy potboiler.
Also starring in Arden of Faversham are the gorgeous costumes by Mika Eubanks. They’re lush and beautiful and miraculously combine modernism with period authenticity. The set, an elegant great hall, in which all the action is played, has been smartly designed by Christopher and Justin Swader. Props and cleverly designed moving set pieces give definition to other locations and scenes, aided by excellent lighting by Reza Behjat. Greg Pliska’s original music and sound design also add immeasurably to the production.
Arden of Faversham has a runtime of 105 minutes including a 10-minute intermission. It plays through Saturday, April 1 at the Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christoper St, Manhattan. For more information and tickets, go to www.redbulltheater.com.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
Featured Image: Cara Ricketts, Thom Sesma, Thomas Jay Ryan