The Maid's Tragedy
By Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher
Brave Spirits Theatre, The Sanctuary at Convergence, Alexandria, Virginia
Thursday, February 25, 2016, center of second pew
Directed by Angela Kay Pirko
I'm the son of a preacher man. Upon my birth I went home to a Southern Baptist parish house. My dad entered the Air Force as a chaplain, and I grew up in the ecumenical chapels on eight bases in six states and three countries. In my adult life I attended various churches and toured the great cathedrals of England. I've experienced a lot of things in church, but never saw a man castrated at the altar.
Evadne (Charlene V. Smith) brandishes a knife near the king (Ian Blackwell Rogers) in the Brave Spirits production of the Jacobean tragedy The Maid's Tragedy. Below, the other maid of the title, Aspatia (Victoria Reinsel). Photos by DJ Corey Photography, Brave Spirits Theatre.
OK, he wasn't really castrated. It was play-acting. But still, the fact that Brave Spirits Theatre is staging its production of The Maid's Tragedy, the circa-1608 thriller by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, in the actual sanctuary of the Convergence complex in Alexandria, Virginia, is significant. The church setting is integral to the thematic resonance of the company's presentation, but it also creates a major hurdle that the production fails to clear: simply put, one of the things I've learned growing up the son of a preacher man is that much of what is said in church goes unheard—and I'm not speaking metaphorically.
Director Angela Kay Pirko makes the most of the visual metaphor of her theater for this play that casts dark shadows on the notions of deity and faith. The latter, faith, has multifaceted meanings, from positive thinking to trust, from a synonym of religion to a euphemism for the social codes of commitments made to other people, places, or principles, e.g., "full faith and credit." All these meanings form a conceptual underpinning for the play's proceedings. As for deity, the production starts with a blending of two hymns, the ancient "All Creatures of Our God and King" and the contemporary "Awesome God," the cast seguing from a traditional devotional delivery into a rollicking Kirk Franklin mode. There in the center, bearing a demeanor of deity, is Ian Blackwell Rogers as the King of Rhodes. If you begin wondering if he is the "awesome god" of the song, further clues come later when the cast sings the song again at his appearance.
However, to label Blackwell's king as the god of this play is too simplistic—for he and Rhodes's superstar warrior Melantius and, to a lesser degree, the nobleman Amintor are, in fact, representatives of the play's true deity: manhood. The path to this conclusion starts with the conundrum of the play's title, as The Maid's Tragedy features two maids, Aspatia and Evadne, with tragic endings. Who is the title character? The answer, Director Pirko says, is the collective. "The real tragedy lies in Maidenhood itself—in the prizing of feminine chastity, in the owning of female bodies, in the control of men's desires over women's will," Pirko writes in her program notes. In the kingdom of Rhodes that Beaumont and Fletcher are depicting in their script and that Brave Spirits is depicting in modern dress (though Costume Designer Heather Whitpan notably dresses the women in corsets as outerwear), how like a god are the men—which is not altogether a good thing for the women.
The sanctuary is decorated as if for a wedding (Eric McMorris is the set designer), and the two blended hymns are used for the processional of the wedding parties. Although only mentioned in the text and not actually played, Fletcher and Beaumont kick off their singularly killer plot with a marriage, the very nature of which inextricably binds the two maidens together. Amintor (James T. Majewski), though long betrothed to Aspatia (Victoria Reinsel), instead marries Melantius's sister, Evadne (Charlene V. Smith), at the insistence of the king. Beaumont and Fletcher use a clever device to portray the suddenness and mystery of this development: Melantius (John Stange), newly returned to Rhodes to attend his best friend's wedding, greets Aspatia as his soon-to-be sister-in-law, who responds by rushing off in tears. Only then does he learn that his best friend is, in fact, becoming his brother-in-law.
Majewski's Amintor doesn't seem too comfortable with this bridal swap, either. He accepts it as the king's command and determines to make it a happy, fruitful union, but after Aspatia intercepts him on his wedding night, he pauses to meditate on how his heart isn't as much in this marriage as it would have been with Aspatia. Nevertheless, he decides to head for bed and get on with the sex. And Smith's Evadne is a fetching prize, dressed in a curve-accentuating red and black suit for the wedding and now wearing come-hither lingerie as she sits on the bed up on the sanctuary—the altar, in fact, serves as a Murphy Bed, pulled down for the sex scenes.
Well, actually the bed serves for no sex at all in the two scenes it appears. In this early scene, Evadne wants nothing to do with Amintor, refusing to have sex with him. In a scene of mounting tension as Amintor's anger overtakes his confusion and Evadne's pride turns to belligerence, she finally reveals the truth: She is the king's mistress, and her marriage to Amintor is their beard. In a later scene, Evadne again refuses to have sex, this time with the king, and explains herself in such a way that her bedmate will never have sex again.
Evadne is a fascinating character. Though you can't be sure the king didn't force himself on her, Evadne's stated motive is power. She even warns the king that "I swore indeed, that I would never love a man of lower place; but, if your fortune should throw you from this height, I bade you trust I would forsake you, and would bend to him that won your throne: I love with my ambition, not with my eyes." However, once Melantius finds out about her relationship with the king, he buries his sister in guilt, evoking his honor and their family heritage while threatening to kill her himself. She becomes consumed with shame and promises to kill the king. She is thorough about it. As allegorical actions go, castration is pretty extreme, but it also casts Evadne into a new shame, especially in the self-centered judgment of Amintor, whose life has come completely undone thanks to the actions of the king and Evadne along with Aspatia's lingering grief. Such scorching passions—whether it's from lost love (Aspatia), lost honor (Melantius), a screwed-up life (Amintor), or your own screwed-up head (Evadne)—can't be endured and leads to multiple suicides at the play's climax.
Despite promising sex and delivering gore, The Maid's Tragedy is actually a character study played out in a series of two-person conversation scenes. To be most effective, it requires a cast of supple actors who can master the intricate verse. Pirko, for the most part, has put together such a cast, though some players play broadly with their passions, reaching manic proportions in the performances of Stange as Melantius and Reinsel as Aspatia. That could be their chosen interpretations of their roles, as both characters are so focused on their states—he of his heroism, then his honor, then his anguish, she of her broken heart—that their overly passionate whining tends to irritate even the other characters (and I have to point out that we've seen Reinsel do exquisite work almost every time out, so I trust in her talent). On the other hand, their performance choices could be a matter of playing the space.
Modern-designed churches, on the whole, are notorious for their poor acoustics. The Sanctuary at Convergence suffers the same condition, with its peaked ceiling under the church's steeple: voices cry to heaven but never come back to earth where the audience is sitting. Action that takes place in the space in front of the pews is generally audible. But once the actors ascend the steps to the sanctuary, we can't distinguish their words, obscuring the more subtle renderings of characters and undermining a play so reliant on conversations to carry its emotional wallop.
True, the castration is a wallop even if we can't clearly hear Evadne setting up her victim; Smith uses broad strokes with a knife to make her point penetrate. Another visual wallop comes when Aspatia intends to kill herself by disguising herself as her brother and challenging Amintor to a duel—another bit of extreme allegorical behavior on the part of one of the play's maids. The duel of swords between Majewski and Reinsel is exhilarating.
Part of Brave Spirits' modus operandi is incorporating music into its shows, and Pirko has done well here both with casting strong voices, especially the stellar songstress Mary Myers who plays various court ladies, and with her choice of songs. Especially apt given the production's theme and setting is Halsey's "Young God" with its lyrics "I know you wanna go to heaven but you're human tonight…And if you wanna go to heaven you should f**k me tonight."
Writing a play for performance by the King's Men, who likely first staged The Maid's Tragedy, meant that Beaumont and Fletcher would need to incorporate into the action a clown making cynical observations of the society he encounters. Calianax, Aspatia's father and keeper of the fort at Rhodes, fills this role, and Gary DuBreil masters the part. Calianax has long been an enemy to Melantius, and the heartbreak of his daughter finally pushes him over the edge to challenge Melantius to a fight. DuBreil drags in a broadsword almost as long as he is tall and is unable to do much with it; the sword manages him, in fact, though the strapping Stange effortlessly disarms Calianax and twirls the sword about. Melantius later enlists Calianax to join him in rebellion against the king, but Calianax tries to rat him out to the king. In a banquet scene that is ancestor to Abbot and Costello skits, the warrior keeps outwitting the keeper's attempts to tattle, and finally Calianax sees no choice but to join the rebellion.
The death of his daughter, however, generates a reaction from Calianax so different from all the other characters who wear passion on their sleeves like bling. "My daughter dead here, too!" he says, and DuBreil continues almost resignedly (instead of bitterly): "And you have all fine new tricks to grieve; but I ne'er knew any but direct crying." As if to prove Calianax's point about "fine new tricks to grieve," Melantius makes to kill himself over the loss of his best friend (he doesn't give much of a hoot about his sister's demise), but is stopped, prompting Calianax to pity him and proclaim him a friend. Then comes another odd line contextually: "You have given me that among you will kill me quickly; but I'll go home, and live as long as I can."
Though coming from DuBreil's Calianax, it's tempting to see this as the true theme of the play: quit your whining and get on with life. Given the setting in which we are viewing this play, the line comes off more as a benediction, hearkening to a stanza of the hymn that opens the production:
All you who are of tender heart,
forgiving others, take your part;
All you who pain and sorrow bear,
praise God and on him cast your care.
March 2, 2016