The Apocrypha Project (The Hidden Room) @ York Rite Masonic Hall, Austin, Texas, 2014His Contemporaries

  • Joseph F. Stephenson
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The Apocrypha Project, featuring Arden of Faversham, The Merry Devil of Edmonton, and Mucedorus. The Hidden Room at York Rite Masonic Hall, Austin, Texas, October-November 2014

Reviewed by Joseph F. Stephenson, Abilene Christian University

Lovers of Shakespeare in Texas have learned not to miss anything put on by The Hidden Room. This company’s Original Practice Shakespeare productions, performed in the ritual room of a Masonic lodge in downtown Austin, have consistently impressed audiences, critics, and awards committees alike. Early this year, Beth Burns, “matriarch” of the company, broke new ground by mounting a breathtaking production of Der bestrafte Brudermord (the German play somehow descended from Hamlet) in translation—with puppets. This autumn’s announcement of three early modern plays would be performed as staged readings under the umbrella label “The Apocrypha Project” was met with delight, curiosity, and anticipation. Burns was at it again.

As the name implies, The Apocrypha Project took on the Shakespeare Apocrypha: the ever-changing list of plays that have been—at some point in time, all or part, with greater or lesser degrees of certainty—attributed to Shakespeare. Of the twenty or so plays prominent in that group, Burns chose a nice variety: the domestic tragedy Arden of Faversham, the (mostly) traditional comedy The Merry Devil of Edmonton, and the wildly popular romance Mucedorus. Despite the unfamiliarity of the material and short rehearsal times for each piece, the project was a smashing success, not to mention a historic opportunity to see three plays very seldom staged these days.

The first weekend of The Apocrypha Project featured the best known of the three plays, Arden of Faversham (first printed 1592). The plot of the play is based on real-life events of forty years previous: adulterous wife Alice Arden (Barbara Chisholm) tries—repeatedly—to dispose of her husband, the titular Thomas Arden (Robert Matney). Todd Kassens as Arden’s friend Franklin and Nathan Jerkins as the Alice’s lubricious lover Mosbie offered strong support to the lead actors, with Mosbie, interestingly, speaking some of the play’s most evocative speeches: words that Jonathan Bate and his cohort have recently attributed with some confidence to Shakespeare.

Figure 1: Nathan Jerkins as Mosbie and Barbara Chisholm as Alice in Arden of Faversham. All photos by Kimberly Mead.

Figure 1: Nathan Jerkins as Mosbie and Barbara Chisholm as Alice in Arden of Faversham. All photos by Kimberly Mead.

Burns and company chose to play the lurid and sensationalist plot for laughs—and certainly it would be hard to avoid laughs at any production these days—though it is hard to imagine that interpretation prevailing in 1592. Hired murderers Black Will (Jason Newman) and Shakebag (Joseph Garlock) stole scenes progressively more shamelessly as the play progressed (aided and abetted by improvised “theme music” from Cesar Osorio and Howard Burkett). The fact that the actors wore twentieth-century costumes made the comic interpretation an easier sell, and indeed the audience was in stitches for much of the show.

Figure 2: Ryan Crowder as Fabell and James Callàs Ball as Coreb in The Merry Devil of Edmonton. Costumes by Jennifer Davis.

Figure 2: Ryan Crowder as Fabell and James Callàs Ball as Coreb in The Merry Devil of Edmonton. Costumes by Jennifer Davis.

The final weekend of the series brought The Merry Devil of Edmonton (first printed 1604), perhaps chosen because the play opened on Halloween night. In the play’s induction, the titular “merry devil” Peter Fabell, played by Ryan Crowder, seems to accomplish a comic reversal of the fate of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus: Fabell, who has sold his soul to the devil and whose time is up, uses a magically sticky chair to trick the demonic messenger Coreb (James Callàs Ball) into extending Fabell’s lease on life by seven years. This scene was very effective, and the comic use of magic seemed to promise more such tricks later in the play—especially after Fabell pledges his aid to one of the lovers in the comedy’s conventional but complicated marriage plot—though, instead, the plot eventually finds its way to resolution through purely natural means. It may be that the magic would have been found in scenes of the play that are now missing, as the play is quite short there are a few holes in the plot. Though these oddities are the fault of the script, not the production, it may be that another choice of play from the Apocrypha would have proved more rewarding both for the company and the audience. Alternatively, some of the implied scenes—for example, the removal of the desirable young Millicent (Hannah Adrian) from a convent where her parents place her for safekeeping—could have been staged by the company as dumb shows here and there during the performance.

Nevertheless, the production heroically found humor in some unlikely places: Julie Linnard was disturbingly hilarious as the perverse prioress of the convent, and Robert Deike as the Host Blague convincingly rattled off obsolete allusions and swear words with earthy good cheer. Most especially, Judd Farris as Sir John the venial priest brought a light, human quality to the stock character he played, and Farris’ transformation of Sir John’s obscure catch phrase “Grass and hay!” into a song was nothing short of brilliant.

Nestled between these two fine productions was the real gem of the project: Mucedorus, produced very infrequently nowadays, but an immensely popular play in early modern times both for reading (existing in no fewer than seventeen quarto versions) and in production, having been performed for both Queen Elizabeth and King James by Shakespeare’s company. It is often named as a sort of precursor to The Winter’s Tale, most obviously because of an ursine onstage visitor, but also for its combination of court and country scenes, the fairy-tale quality of its plot, and its mixing of genres. Mucedorus was first published in 1598 but was probably in existence by 1590. The reason why it has found its way into the Shakespeare Apocrypha, however, is that a revised version was published in 1610, when Shakespeare was the main writer for the King’s Men. Certain passages are very reminiscent of Shakespeare—almost too reminiscent, and Bate makes the perspicacious observation that the certain of the additions to the play are clearly either written by Shakespeare or by “someone else—Armin, perhaps, or Jonson or Fletcher—writing as if they were Shakespeare” (506).

Figure 3: Isto Barton as Comedy and Rommel Sulit as Envy in the induction of Mucedorus. Costumes by Jennifer Davis and Monica Gibson; masks by Jennifer Davis.

Figure 3: Isto Barton as Comedy and Rommel Sulit as Envy in the induction of Mucedorus. Costumes by Jennifer Davis and Monica Gibson; masks by Jennifer Davis.

The Hidden Room’s production began with the very interesting induction, a contest between Comedy (Isto Barton) and Envy (Rommel Sulit), seeking to spoil Comedy’s plans. Kudos to Burns for keeping the induction and the related epilogue in the play even though this sort of contest between genres would seem dispensable. It might have been nice, however, to have sashes to label these allegorical figures, since it was not immediately clear who the figures were or that they were not part of the main play.

Joseph Garlock was eminently likable as the princely title character, keeping the audience—as well as the lovely Amadine (once again Isto Barton in this all-male production)—solidly on his side even when in disguise and sub-disguise. The play is unusual for an early modern comedy in that the love plot is resolved early. An attack by a bear (not a tame polar bear, as may have been the case when performed for King James, but Ben McLemore in a bear suit) allows Amadine to see the difference between man and man: her betrothed Segasto (Judd Farris) runs away, leaving her at the mercy of the bear, while Mucedorus, disguised as a poor shepherd, rescues her and kills the bear. Once again, Farris furnishes many laughs, as does James Callàs Ball as the delightfully dense clown Mouse. Costumes by Jennifer Davis and Monica Gibson, featuring a crown and masks made by Davis, were both beautiful and period accurate.

Figure 4: Mucedorus (Joseph Garlock) presents the bear’s head to Amadine (Isto Barton).

Figure 4: Mucedorus (Joseph Garlock) presents the bear’s head to Amadine (Isto Barton).

However, it was the chemistry and oddly believable relationship between Garlock’s Mucedorus and Barton’s Amadine that really captivated the audience. Barton’s Amadine was much too smart and independent to stay committed to the foppish Segasto, and it was no surprise when she agreed to flee with Mucedorus. As in the fairy tales and Sidney’s Arcadia which the play echoes—and Shakespeare’s late romances which it anticipates—these two characters (at least as played by these two fine actors) seemed somehow to rise above the unbelievable plot they inhabited and teach us something about ourselves.

The Hidden Room’s Apocrypha Project was utterly a delight. It was a privilege to attend all three of these rarely produced plays—though not, perhaps, quite as rarely as one might think. Arden of Faversham, the play with perhaps the most creditable claim to partly Shakespearean authorship, is produced now and then: its plot is gripping, its imagery memorable, and its language—in places—soaring. The RSC, for example, offered a modern-dress production in the summer of 2014 (which also treated the plot comically), and there are many other productions on record for the last century. The Merry Devil of Edmonton—which Burns opined in a curtain speech and most agree has no legitimate claim to Shakespearean authorship—is a rare bird indeed: Burns knew of only one other production (by Bad Quarto Productions at the Philadelphia Fringe in 2010) on record since 1700. Burns also told the audience that The Hidden Room’s production of Mucedorus may have been the first since the 18th century. Burns spoke from her best knowledge and some conversation with scholars; however, my research has revealed that all three of the plays reviewed here were performed at the Globe Theater in Los Angeles—Arden in 1985, Mucedorus in 1987 and Merry Devil in 1989—as part of a sort of Apocrypha project of their own.[2] In addition, Mucedorus was produced by Poculi Ludique Societas in Toronto in November 2013, and, given the fact that the play is rather widely known among aficionados, almost certainly at other places and other times through the years. Also, intriguingly, at least two productions of Mucedorus are scheduled for 2015: one in New South Wales, Australia, and one at the Blackfriars in Virginia. Now that Bate and company have called attention to the plays among the Apocrypha that have the best claim to some influence of Shakespeare, more productions of all of these plays can be hoped for. For now, however, hats off to Beth Burns and The Hidden Room for putting up quality productions of all three of these plays in three weeks—a feat that took the Globe theater of Los Angeles four years to accomplish—and making certain residents of and visitors to Austin, Texas, a very happy, very few people now alive to have seen all three plays.

 

Joseph F. Stephenson earned his Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut and is an Associate Professor of English at Abilene Christian University. His scholarship focuses on early modern drama in performance, including a recent article in Restoration on Dryden’s Amboyna. Joe teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on Shakespeare and Renaissance literature both in Abilene and for ACU’s study abroad program in Oxford. He also serves as resident dramaturg for the Abilene Shakespeare Festival and for 7 Towers Theatre in Austin.

 

[1] For this and other references in this review, see Shakespeare and Others, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (Palgrave McMillan, 2013).

[2] See Joseph H. Stodder’s review in Shakespeare Quarterly 41.3 (1990): 368-72.

Author: Joseph F. Stephenson

Joseph F. Stephenson, Ph. D., is the James W. Culp Distinguished Professor of English at Abilene Christian University (Texas). His scholarship focuses on early modern drama in performance, especially English plays that feature Dutch characters. Joe teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in British literature (especially Shakespeare) both in Abilene and for ACU’s study abroad programme in Oxford. His current major project is a scholarly edition of an unpublished manuscript play, a restoration comedy called The Dutch Lady.
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