A Warning for Fair Women, Directed by Brent Griffin, Resurgens Theatre Company, Atlanta, GA, USA. November 20, 2018.
Reviewed by Meg F. Pearson, University of West Georgia
Southern enthusiasts of non-Shakespearean drama enjoy an embarrassment of riches from the Resurgens Theatre Company. The company is devoted to original productions and the verse dramas of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, which means that one can see rarely-staged plays such as this anonymous 1599 domestic tragedy in the comfort of the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse in Atlanta.
This particular production, lit by what the company likes to call “a candlelight wash,” took place before a remarkable crowd of enthusiasts, including the editor of a forthcoming edition of the play who collaborated on the performance. A performance billed as “the first professional staging in modern history” brings out a very specific sort of audience, one eager to see dumbshows, allegorical debates between Tragedy, Comedy, and History, and the scandalous true-crime tale of the “lamentable murther of Master George Sanders of London.” Their excitement at seeing this play fueled a largely entertaining evening of theater.
The play began with music, dancing, and dueling dramatic genres and did not stop moving for over 2000 lines. We were quickly introduced to our doomed lovers – Anne Sanders and George Brown – as well as the meddling neighbors who set the plot in motion, Anne Drurie and her servant, “Trusty” Roger. All four of these actors succeeded in bringing this strangely hybrid play to life: Ash Anderson and Matthew Trautwein as Mistress Drurie and Roger elegantly summoned forth every scrap of the play’s humor for our enjoyment; Tamil Periasamy as George Brown was a feckless yet charismatic Romeo-type; and Sims Lamason held her own as the easily-misled Anne Sanders. (Indeed, Ms. Lamason played Alice Arden in a recent production of Arden of Faversham, and that far livelier role seems to have thankfully informed her choices in this performance.)
The Shakespeare Tavern space enables heavy usage of the audience, and the dynamic movement of characters across the stage, up and down to the balcony, and in between (and under!) the tables of audience members brought the bare stage to life in a way rarely seen by this reviewer. A Warning for Fair Women includes considerable metatheatrical wall-breaking on the page (Tragedie turn[s] to the people to address the audience within 100 lines of the opening), and the play truly came to life in such a permissive space. That energy helped to infuse the more old fashioned set pieces – such as the dumb show masque of murder – and hold the audience through several of the more challenging tonal shifts in the play, such as the final three to four scenes.
This production, like so many from Resurgens, blazes away from the first line, roaring through wonderful scenes of female friendship, sassy servants, and idiotic lovers for nearly 90 minutes. However, between the discovery of George Browne’s role in the murder of Anne’s husband, George Saunders, and the epilogue, the play comes to a screeching halt. The aforementioned Tragedie doubles as the Lord Justice, who takes to the balcony to address the case for what seems like a lifetime. Even though the trial is based almost exclusively on evidence from miraculous developments and the familiar corpse whose every wound is a tongue, the play’s energy from this point on drags almost to a standstill with few exceptions such as George Browne’s mad leap from the gallows. Exacerbating this undesirable shift in tone and pace is the play’s lengthy indictment of Mrs. Saunders as the worst woman, wife, and mother of all time. By the time Anne apologizes to her children before she is executed, one feels like Seinfeld’s Elaine watching The English Patient: “Just die already! Die!!”
One may appear churlish complaining about the expected moral ending of a true-crime domestic tragedy, particularly in a production that featured writhing furies, metaphorical murders involving trees, protagonists scrabbling under one’s table, masterful music and singing, and dramatic genres bearing whips. However, the discrepancy between the first three-fourths of the play and the last quarter is exactly what makes the ending so challenging. The play wants to teach us a lesson, but this reviewer just wanted to spend more time with the naughty neighbors in Billingsgate. That wistfulness speaks perhaps to the contagious energy of much of this production and the structural flaws of the play itself.
 All quotes from the play are from Cannon, Charles D. ed. A Warning for Fair Woman: A Critical Edition. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, Inc., 1975.