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Arden of Faversham

The Crime, The Comedy, The Burning Passion

American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Virginia
Saturday, March 17, 2019, D–6&7
Actors' Renaissance Season

Thomas Arden, an entrepreneur and real estate developer in Faversham, England, sits down to breakfast before departing for London. Someone backstage starts plucking on a double bass. It's an ominous soundtrack with a jazz-tinged groove. Either somebody is about to die, or we're about to see some fun.

This soundtrack plays seven times in the American Shakespeare Center's production of the circa 1590 play Arden of Faversham at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia. Yet, only one time is a person offed, and only one person is offed despite the number of times we hear this bass line riff. That person is— SPOILER ALERT!—Thomas Arden of Faversham. The murderer is—SPOILER ALERT!—half the people in the cast. Actually, these spoiler alerts are as pertinent as divulging the coward who shot Jesse James. The 1551 murder of Arden was so notorious, Holinshed included it in his Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, the tome William Shakespeare used as the primary source for his history plays, as well as for Macbeth, King Lear, and Cymbeline. The play's title page tells all: "The Lamentable and True Tragedy of Master Arden of Faversham in Kent, Who was Most Wickedly Murdered, by the Means of His Disloyal and Wanton Wife, Who for the Love She Bare to One Mosby, Hired Two Desparate Ruffians, Black Will and Shakebag, to Kill Him. Wherein is Showed the Great Malice and Dissimulation of a Wicked Woman, the Insatiable Desire of Filthy Lust, and the Shameful End of All Murderers."

Arden of Faversham is not a whodunnit but a howdunnit—or, rather, a hownotdunnituntilfinallydunnit. The many missteps made in trying to murder Arden turns this real crime drama into a comic gem burnished to brilliant, multifaceted matter in the hands of the American Shakespeare Center actors capping off one of the company's most artistically satisfying Actors' Renaissance Seasons.

The Blackfriars Playhouse is the world's only re-creation of Shakespeare's indoor theater. Here, the American Shakespeare Center uses the staging practices of Shakespeare's own company: universal lighting, small company (a dozen actors), cross-gender casting, no electronic or digital effects, a thrust stage with the audience in close proximity—patrons even using "gallant stools" on the stage itself—and direct-address to the audience. For the annual Actors' Renaissance Season, the company goes beyond original staging principles to original production practices of Shakespeare's time: the 12 actors put on a repertory of plays (Arden of Faversham is the fourth of four this season) without a director or production team and with only a half-dozen days of rehearsal. As an ensemble, they costume themselves, and for Arden they invoke the film noir styles of the 1940s and 1950s with smoking hot smoking women and men, three-piece business suits, elegantly slinky dresses, paperboy-style apprentices, and Arden's servant Michael (Brandon Carter) wearing the tux and tails of a butler. As an ensemble, they put together a set list of preshow and intermission music, including acoustic versions of Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer," Grateful Dead's "Dire Wolf," Bill Withers' "Use Me," and I'm With Her's "Game to Lose," which they play with sell-out-arena skills: Carter's washboard playing alone is worth the ticket to the show.

That bass riff every time Arden's life is supposed to meet its end is one of many thematic nuances giving depth to an episodically straightforward script. A pair of silver dice—"with which we played for kisses many a time," says Arden's wife, Alice (Abbi Hawk), "And when I lost, I won, and so did he"—is mentioned only once in the text, but in this staging they show up at key junctures in the play, juggled, tossed, lost, and found. This revisted image of gambling with love testifies to the intelligence and imagination of actors well-versed in, and speaking well the verse of, the theatrical works of Shakespeare's time.

But is this Shakespeare? The play was first published in 1592 with no author attributed (not uncommon in early modern English drama). Company member Benjamin Reed ends his preshow announcements by welcoming the audience to "Arden of Faversham, by Anonymous—or Unknown; always a debate," smiling slyly as he departs. Writers proposed as authors of all or some of the script include Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe (who, being from nearby Canterbury, could account for the script's vivid geographical details), and Shakespeare. I have a strong opinion, based on others' scholarship, my seeing this play three times, and conversations with actors who are experienced with the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but I'll get to my opinion in a bit.

One of the plays greatest charms is that it's populated by common, everyday people. The only nobility is Lord Cheiny (Katie Little) appearing in one scene and inadvertently interrupting one of the murder attempts, and mention is made of Mosby (Reed) being a steward in the house of one Lord Clifford. The closest thing to royalty is the royal patent that Arden receives from Edward VI (Henry VIII's son) giving him the deed to the lands of the dissolved Abby of Faversham. Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor is one of the other few exceptions to the tendency of that decade's playwrights to portray the noble classes or historical figures.

Arden (David Anthony Lewis), known for being "greedy-gaping," has made a lot of enemies, especially when he takes possession of the abbey lands. That move undercuts one Greene (Calder Shilling), a real estate speculator who vows revenge. Arden also evicts the family of one Dick Reede (Little), who accosts Arden with a curse that his plot of land would prove "ruinous and fatal" for Arden and that he be "butchered by thy dearest friends." Reede's curse turns out to be prophetic, yet he's one of the few members of the cast who isn't part of the conspiracy to kill Arden.

At the center of that conspiracy is Alice Arden, who is playing at dice with Mosby (Arden is aware of the alleged affair, but his main complaint is that his wife is screwing a man who is nothing more than a steward). Alice and Mosby initially enlist the assistance of Clarke (KP Powell), a painter aiming to secure a marriage with Mosby's sister Susan (Shunté Lofton) who also has been promised to Michael. Clarke, claiming to be a master of poisons, proposes a painting tempering his oils with poison so strong "That whoso looks upon the work he draws shall, with the beams that issue from his sight, suck venom to his breast and slay himself" (Clarke wears goggles to prevent beams issuing from his sight while painting it). This excites Mosby, but Alice wisely dismisses the idea, so Clarke provides a fatal condiment which Alice uses in her husband's breakfast. It only makes the porridge taste so bad Arden can't finish it—or himself—off. Later, Clarke provides a crucifix dipped in deadly poison. It is never applied to Arden, but Alice, while holding it (using protection), gets lovey-dovey with Mosby who even in her embrace has to keep his face away from the deadly crucifix she's unwittingly wielding. The play's obsession with bizarre poison is very Kyd like, but Arden of Faversham has none of the gratuitous Latin and tedious allegorical flourishes that bog down Kyd's Spanish Tragedy.

Alice gets a visit from Greene, learns of his anger toward her husband, and further marinades him with a tale of his abusive behavior toward her. "Now, fie upon him, churl!" says Greene. "And if he live a day, he lives too long. But frolic, woman! I shall be the man shall set you free from all this discontent." Alice has this kind of influence on guys. Greene hires two ruffians to do the whack job, Black Will (Chris Johnston) and Shakebag (John Harrell). The character names are not authorship clues; they are in the original chronicle. Black Will is every bit the bombastic Marlovian braggart soldier, though without the actual heroic traits of, say, Tamburlaine or Talbot in Henry VI, Part One. Nor does this text represent the kind of mighty blank verse Marlowe produced.

In fact, Black Will and Shakebag fit right in Shakespeare's stable of comic duos. That's how Johnston and Harrell play them. After this performance and with the recollection of their hit turns as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in last year's Actors' Renaissance Season productions of Hamlet and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, my wife says, "John and Chris are becoming another Laurel and Hardy." True, and I would throw into that comparison every other classic comedy duo with the caveat that either can play either half of the team: if Johnston and Harrell as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern last year are, respectively, Laurel and Hardy or Costello and Abbott or Lewis and Martin or Chong and Cheech, Johnston and Harrell as Black Will and Shakebag this year are, respectively, Hardy and Laurel or Abbott and Costello or Martin and Lewis or Cheech and Chong.

Johnston's Black Will spews self-love and generic contempt with as threatening a demeanor as he can dream up. Harrell's Shakebag thinks himself intelligent but just can't quite reach that level of thought no matter how much physical effort he applies. Together, they perform a constant pas de deux of hyperactive menace, playing off each other's lines, not just their own. Sometimes they turn their menace on each other, coming nose-to-nose with intent to maim through brute attitude though not actual blows.

Yet their dramatic arc is totally banal; the characters, not what they do, are larger than life. That they can't get the job done is not nearly as funny as their boasting beforehand and complaining afterward. On their first ambush in the marketplace, an apprentice closes his bookstall awning on the hiding Blackwell (Johnston spends the rest of the play with a blood-smeared face). On their second attempt, the doors to Arden's London residence are locked when Arden discovers that Michael, drafted to help in the murder, "forgot" to lock the doors. Lord Cheiny interrupts their next ambush, and their fourth attempt is thwarted by a mist that causes them to get lost and fall in a ditch. They finally manage to participate in an all-out brawl with Arden, but he and best friend Franklin (Rick Blunt) bests them. When they do succeed in killing Arden, it's with the assistance of Mosby, Alice, Michael, and Susan. Actually, the first ambush is not banal on this opening night because the apprentice (Meg Rodgers) could not get the bookstore awning to lower; "You're in my light," the patiently crouching Blackwell ad libs as theatrical disaster looms. Exasperated, Rodgers simply swings the awning into Johnston. The coup de grâce comes when Greene rushes in to ask how Arden escaped, and Harrell's Shakebag describes how "Standing against a wall, watching Arden's coming, 45 minutes later a boy let down his shop window and broke his head" (the italics being extratextual). I love live theater for moments like this, not when mistakes happen but when the actors use their improv talents to turn those mistakes to their theatrical advantage.

Even with the performances of Harrell and Johnston, Blackwill and Shakebag do not steal the show: Alice simply won't let them. The scheming wife is one of theater's great female characters, so modern and yet of her time. The Shakespeare character I most liken her to is Richard III, putting on a show of excessive devotion to Arden, manipulating Greene into murdering her husband for her, promising both Michael and Clarke marriage to Susan, warily monitoring the suspicious Franklin, and slipping into soliloquy to tell the audience how she's playing this game. After bidding farewell to Greene, Hawk looks coyly at the audience: "All this goes well," she says, seducing us, too. After Hawk's Alice helps in the murder by stabbing her husband in the heart, realizing she's about to be arrested she becomes excessively repentant: "Rise up, sweet Arden, and enjoy thy love, and frown not on me when we meet in heaven: In heaven I'll love thee, though on earth I did not." Hawk delivers this with sweet devotion, no irony intended, which only heightens the line's comic effect.

Hawk's smoldering sexual chemistry with Reed's Mosby is scintillating. When Mosby tries to resist her, protesting that they can't continue their affair because he swore an oath to Arden, Alice replies, "As if I have not sworn as much myself and given my hand unto him in the church! Tush, Mosby; oaths are words, and words is wind, and wind is mutable." Hawk speaks this while crawling across the table in the rhythm of the verse, like a panther stalking her prey and ready to pounce—which she does, wrapping Mosby in her arms. We can never be sure when she's telling the truth, a grifter of such accomplishment that she could be conning the audience.

The scene that best exemplifies Alice's psychological contortions is her "quarrel scene" with Mosby. He enters with this soliloquy:

Disturbèd thoughts drives me from company
And dries my marrow with their watchfulness;
Continual trouble of my moody brain
Feebles my body by excess of drink,
And nips me as the bitter north-east wind
Doth check the tender blossoms in the spring.
Well fares the man, howe'er his cates do taste,
That tables not with foul suspicion;
And he but pines amongst his delicates,
Whose troubled mind is stuffed with discontent.

Alice then enters, first claiming she's found religion and ending their affair, then begging the angrily departing Mosby to stay, and then bandying with him over the earnestness of their hearts. This scene's deliberate allegorical progression of nesting images, its metaphors employed as verbs, its verse structure, and its richly rendered characters expressing such raw emotions all point to Shakespeare, and most scholars attribute this scene to him. This is early Shakespeare (though mature verse-writing), written about the same time Shakespeare penned the Margaret-Suffolk parting scene in Henry VI, Part Two. I don't see Shakespeare's hand in the entire Arden of Faversham, but I definitely hear it in this scene and consider Blackwill and Shakebag to be his creations. By the way, scholars also now dismiss Marlowe and Kyd as his collaborators, so the identities of any other authors may be forever a mystery (one prevailing theory has Shakespeare, the Upstart Crow, embellishing an existing script and adding the quarrel scene).

But what the hell is going on in the quarrel scene? I don't love you, I do, I don't, get lost, don't leave me. It's not faulty playwriting at work here but Alice herself. Hawk and Reed turn this moment into riveting interpersonal drama as Alice, for whatever reason, uses the sharper fingernails of her words and wiles to scratch Mosby's festering wounded soul. Hints abound that Mosby might be aiming for Arden's money through Alice, so is she a grifter flushing out a grifter in this scene? If you take the Richard III parallel, that makes sense. Though Reed's Mosby is seeking advancement, for sure, he's also yearning for love. He displays more jealousy over Alice than Arden does.

In Hawk's reading, what the quarrel scene reveals is the breadth of Alice's ego managing a fantasy world she's created out of the company she keeps. When she gets into a tight space, she starts performing, and she's constantly extricating herself from tight spaces in that scene. In her final scene, as she and the other conspirators stand accused, the goldsmith Bradshaw (Rodgers), who had delivered a letter from Greene to Alice, claims she didn't know its contents and pleads with Alice to "speak the truth" on her behalf. Alice gives a wishy-washy answer, then says, "Leave now to trouble me with worldly things, and let me meditate upon my Savior Christ, whose blood must save me for the blood I shed." The play is meant to land with a morality lesson for its audience, but Hawk's exaggerated penitence causes Reed's Mosby to roll his eyes, finally seeing his lover as a mere drama queen, hopelessly hung up on romance like a soap opera addict. "How long shall I live in this hell of grief?" Mosby says. "Convey me from the presence of that strumpet."

Alice is sentenced to be burned at the stake, and Hawk exudes a sense of satisfaction. "Let my death make amends for all my sins," she says bravely. But, come on: burning is the only way for a drama queen to make her ultimate exit.

Eric Minton
March 27, 2019

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