This Play Has a Lot of Stupidity Going for It
By John Lyly
American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
Friday, March 27, 2015, C–4&5 (center stalls)
Actors' Renaissance Season
Accius (Michael Amendola) plays guitar for Silena (Lauren Ballard) in the American Shakespeare Center's production of John Lyly's Mother Bombie at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Below, Bridget Rue as Mother Bombie. Photos by Lindsey Walters, American Shakespeare Center.
We hear much about how "foolish" Accius and Silena are. The former is the son of Memphio, the latter the daughter of Stellio, two wealthy guys in Rochester, England. We hear a lot about Accius and Silena before we see them because their fathers, ashamed over their children’s stupidity, keep them hidden away until they can be schemed into a marriage. It's well into the first act before Michael Amendola makes his first appearance as Accius.
Dressed like a monkey in a hurdy gurdy act with gold-brocaded red jacket, a stiff red ruff collar, red trousers, and yellow socks, this Accius can’t even figure out how to place his guitar strap over his shoulder. After somehow failing in his first attempt (we watch it and still have no idea how Amendola pulls off the sight gag), he ends up laying the strap on top of his head. Meanwhile, across the stage, Lauren Ballard, dressed in a gold-embroidered white Elizabethan court dress, plays Silena like a music box ballerina, hands ever outstretched, body leaning back as if this were proper carriage, and face frozen in a huge vacant smile. At one point, she even spins herself around and ends up as dizzy as she is ditzy.
As much as the audience laughs during this scene, this is not the funniest bit of stage business in a production full of hilarious moments in the American Shakespeare Center's production of John Lyly's Mother Bombie. However, it is instructive. Though I am especially sensitive to portrayals of people with developmental disabilities, I laughed my own fool head off at Amendola and Ballard. That's because these actors, by maintaining respect to the script written in 1590, also respect their characters, even if those characters are as downright stupid as someone who plays way too many video games or watches way too much reality TV would be upon leaving the house for the first time.
It is also the acting talent and comic capabilities of this Actors’ Renaissance Season troupe that saves this play from its own script. As vital as Lyly was in the evolution of the Elizabethan theater, and as influential as he was on William Shakespeare himself, I came out of Mother Bombie with the unshakable contention that it’s a pretty stupid play. The American Shakespeare Center (ASC) with its Blackfriars Playhouse, the world’s only replica of Shakespeare’s indoor theater, is dedicated to exploring The Bard’s play-producing conditions. Environmentally, they do so by staging plays in universal lighting with no sets, and no electronics or digital supplementation. For the annual Actors’ Renaissance Season, there are no directors or design teams, either, and the actors get only about 50 hours of rehearsal time to come up with their costumes and props and work out the blocking on their own, the process scholars believe Shakespeare's own company used.
Exploring Shakespeare’s play-producing conditions also means staging the works of his influencers, contemporaries, and those he influenced, and as the ASC is now a quarter century old (formerly the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, it opened the Blackfriars in Staunton in 2001 as its permanent home), it has pretty much run the gamut of early modern English plays we’ve heard of while dredging up titles that, in some instances, are making their North American debuts even though the plays were written in Shakespeare’s time.
The cool thing about this in the Renaissance Season is watching the 12 actors take hold of unfamiliar material and mold it into a unified production in a week’s time—much the way the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and King’s Men had to do when they received a script from Shakespeare. But it also means we get some strange specimens of theater, such as the plot of Mother Bombie. I’ll try to summarize without the confusion I suffered for much of the play.
The wealthy Memphio (John Harrell) and Stellio (René Thornton Jr.) have seen each other’s kid through their chamber windows and, noting them as handsome/beautiful, figure they must be wise, too. They are advertised as such by their fathers, too, which is why they are keeping the truth, literally, closeted until they can get them married. Another elderly man, the middle class Prisius (Allison Glenzer), is aiming for upward mobility by trying to marry his daughter Livia (Bridget Rue) to Accius, while Prisius’s longtime rival, Sperantus (Christopher Seiler), is trying to do the same thing by marrying his son, Candius (Nathan C. Crocker), a true scholar, to Livia. Both of these fathers are unaware that their children are in love with each other, and when they find out they bar the couple from seeing each other. Each of the four fathers enlist their clever and Latin-learned servants—Dromio (Chris Johnston), Risio (Patrick Midgley), Lucio (Sara Hymes), and Halfpenny (Benjamin Reed)—to bring their schemes about, but the servants conspire together to get Livia and Candius married behind their fathers’ backs
Still with me? Because out of nowhere another couple shows up, this one in poverty, Serena (Hymes) and Maestius (Reed), who are madly in love with each other though they are brother and sister. Their mother is Vicinia (Allison Glenzer), and, well, who the heck is Vicinia? We don't learn the real relevance of this subplot until the end, though we can actually see this surprise plot twist coming from many miles away, our GPS pointed in that direction by Mother Bombie herself, a fortune-teller whom everybody consults at some point or another.
Out of this plot, hijinks and hilarity arise—at least they do in this production, though with little thanks to the plot itself. Scholars, no doubt, can discuss Lyly’s presentation of England’s caste system—he represents upper, middle, peasant, and servant classes in the play—and how he portrays the pursuit of commercial marriages as an obstacle for true love and natural happiness. Lyly also has a rather elitist attitude when it comes to genetic distribution, but we’ll get to that.
My primary interest is the theatricality of plays, and in this production that is all in the determined wherewithal, if not outright comic brilliance, of this company of actors. Only a few jokes arise directly from the text, such as when Candius is forced to court the pretty-house, nobody-home Silena but, upon seeing her, decides she’s too beautiful to pass up. He also believes she's too beautiful to be as stupid as she seems. "So fair a face cannot be the scabbard of a foolish mind," he says, figuring she's joking with him the way she answers nonsensically to his overtures. But Crocker's Candius soon is bearing the look of the confounded as Ballard's Silena, never altering from her china doll affectation, speaks as with a pull cord playing random recordings of conversation snippets without any context to the questions Candius poses. He rushes back into love with Livia, who may be a plain-looking girl but is certainly a lot smarter. And, oh boy can she stitch!
Crocker and Rue act out the 1590 equivalent of phone sex as they enjoy a seemingly innocent picnic together during which Livia is working on her stitchery. Rue describes the pattern to Candius with increasing ecstasy as Crocker likewise gets all hot and bothered over the illustration her needlework is creating. After climaxing, she asks about his studies, and as he reads her Latin poetry, the two slide into another shared orgasmic state. The whole while they never touch each other, but their intellects certainly had a great time.
Even funnier is the noncourting of sister and brother Serena and Maestius. In peasant clothes that play up Reed’s handsome body and enhances Hymes’s lovely curves, the two work heroically to contain their incestuous lust for each other. However, in a hilariously choreographed piece, Reed’s Maestius and Hymes’s Serena accidentally find themselves in sexually provocative positions, all timed to puns in the verse. Ice showers can’t ease the pumping but illicit ardor in their breasts.
The humor of the servants is more obtuse, though the visual of Halfpenny draws near continual laughter as Reed plays him as a person of short stature by sitting on a rolling stool, hidden with his real legs under his cloak, while showing fake puppet-like legs hanging from his waist: it’s not making fun of his stature that’s so funny but the ridiculousness of the staging. Johnston and Midgley similarly seem to realize their lines as Dromio and Risio are going to come well short of registering anything on the laugh meter, so they play their parts with a self-aware cheeky charm. Into this mix of servants enters one Rixula, “a serving wench,” whose point in the story is completely lost on me. However, the part gives Ballard a chance to play a role that is completely 180 degrees from the ditzy Silena, further revealing this actress as a major talent after she nearly stole the show in The Rover.
While the rest of the cast dresses in renaissance or archaic peasant costumes, Rue plays Mother Bombie as the cane-wielding grandmother of a Jersey Shore Madame Marie, in gray wig and wearing a loud-patterned purple 1970s dress, bright floral shawl, large wire-rim glasses, gold slippers, and Mardi Gras necklaces with alligator teeth. It’s a visual comic piece that points to the fact that the character herself seems to have little context with the rest of the play—even though she's the title role. She reads palms and predicts the future with transparent riddles, and because of this skill the other characters consider her wisdom supreme. Mother Bombie seems to be Lyly's device to portray fate intervening to right all wrongs, allowing true love to prevail and children switched at birth to reunite with their true parents. In Lyly’s presentation, the genes for nobility and for stupidity are dictated by which caste your parents belong to. Shakespeare broaches the same notion in Cymbeline, but much more subtly.
Speaking of Shakespeare, there is a lightening flash moment when Silena addresses Accius with the line, “I cry you mercy, I took you for a joint stool.” Yeah, this is the kettle calling the pot black, but it also is the exact same line the Fool in King Lear would use some 15 years later to address a phantom witness when Lear puts his daughters on trial in the hovel during the storm. I can give you no insightful connection in this line's use in the two plays (presumably the Fool is addressing a real joint stool), but that moment here reminds us why this troupe is doing Lyly’s Mother Bombie, rounding out the context of the Shakespeare we can’t get enough of. If that is all I can appreciate of Lyly’s text, I can certainly say the cast makes the whole evening worthwhile theater.
April 20, 2015
Interesting—I thought Bridget Rue's Mother Bombie was less Jersey Shore, more Carol Burnett. But I agree overall: This cast spun gold out of very slight materials. Each has the comedic skill to go to the edge and beyond without losing the audience for a second. Sheer joy.
April 22, 2015