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Cardenio (Double Falsehood)

Wherefore Art Thou Shakespeare?

Double Falsehood, or The Distressed Lovers (revised by Lewis Theobald)
Atlanta Shakespeare Company, New American Shakespeare Tavern, Atlanta, Ga.
Saturday, June 4, 2011 (table in the front); Sunday, June 5, 2011 (table in the back)
Directed by Andrew Houchins

When The Arden Shakespeare series includes a play, I consider it a legitimate part of the canon for I firmly believe, however, that regarding Arden’s and my choice to add Double Falsehood or The Distressed Lovers to the inventory of his works, William Shakesepeare himself would say, “Please don’t.”

Even The Two Gentlemen of Verona is not this bad on the page, and while Two Gents has some redeeming moments and can play well on the stage, Double Falsehood does not and most likely cannot. Judgment remains suspended on the latter even after seeing this production at the Shakespeare Tavern, where Director Andrew Houchins decided the play was so bad it was best to turn it into an over-stylized example of early 18th century theater. The result: Shakespeare-cum-Telemundo novella.

Earlier this year, by staging Edward III, the Tavern completed the entire canon of Shakespeare-attributed plays and staked a claim as the only American company to produce the complete works. Then the company learned that Arden had just included Double Falsehood, a 1727 play that Lewis Theobald claimed was originally Shakespeare’s. Arden based its decision on scholarship tracing Theobald’s version to The History of Cardenio, known to be written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher and believed lost.

Jonathan Horne as Henriquez and Mary Russell as Violante. Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Shakespeare Company.

Having staged the play, the Tavern’s artistic team came to the conclusion that Shakespeare wrote none of it or, at most, maybe a “you” here or a “the” there. I find an interesting parallel in the daughter, Leonora, resisting her father’s tyranny to the many father-daughter relationships that dominate Shakespeare’s later plays, including Two Noble Kinsmen, another collaboration with Fletcher. Also, Henriquez has a soliloquy echoing some of the moral arguments engaged in by a few Shakespeare characters, from Hamlet to Iago but most notably Proteus in Two Gents. In his soliloquy, Henriquez meditates on his own vileness for raping Violante, then linguistically works his way to justifying the deed but yet worries about its impact on his honor, then decides to seduce Leonora behind the back of her beloved and his best friend, then questions the value of a friend who would do such a thing but, oh well, when the prize is Leonora, it’s worth the betrayal of his friend and dishonor of two women.

OK, so if there’s any Shakespeare in that soliloquy, Theobald has buried it unknown fathoms deep. I will try to distill the plot here as briefly as I can. Duke Angelo (Daniel Parvis) has two sons, good Roderick (Matt Felten) and prodigal Henriquez (Jonathan Horne); the latter rapes Violante (Mary Russell) then seduces Leonara (Kelly Criss), known to be engaged to Julio (Nicholas Faircloth) who Henriquez employs on an errand to the duke and then gains the endorsement of his own suit from Leonora’s father, Don Bernardo (Jacob York), who then disgraces Julio’s father, Camillo (Clarke Weigle), for advancing Julio’s case. Intermission. Leonora has run off to a nunnery in the mountains where Julio, now distracted to insanity and believed by Camillo to be dead, is also living and Violante has arrived disguised as a shepherd boy only to be attacked by the Master of the Flock (Parvis, again) who sees through her disguise, but she is saved by Roderick who then helps Henriquez kidnap Leonora from the nunnery (no typos in that phrase, I assure you) but discovers Leonora doesn’t like Henriquez as he had claimed, then Violante reveals herself to Roderick and leads him to Julio and in the final scene Roderick makes all right.

As for characters, they are all archetypes or just simply confounding, as servants and citizens intrude boldly into the action and then abruptly exit. As for the poetry, it was described by one of the Tavern actors in an after-performance talk-back as “blunt force trauma into my brain.” Here is a fine example: when Violante is unmasked in the climactic scene, Henriquez says in an aside, “What a fierce conflict shame and wounded honor raise in my breast—but honor shall o’ercome. She looks as beauteous and as innocent as when I wrong’d her” (no typos in that quote, I assure you). At another point, the Duke suddenly erupts into a 12-line speech starting, “The voice of parents is the voice of gods,” going on to assert that if fathers were put on this earth “for common uses merely of procreation” then “beasts and birds would be as noble” but, rather, fathers are meant to “steer the wanton freight of youth through storms and dangers,” and children should remember that “obedience is the sacrifice of angels.” This speech comes after the obstinacies of the two other fathers have been revealed as foibles.

Then there’s the epilogue, which admonishes the “moral bards of good Queen Bess’s days” for considering rape “as dreadful as murder” and posits that it is not so bad as, say, being forsaken, and the victim (my word) should really just wink and keep silent even to her wedding night. An actress spoke the epilogue in the original 1727 production; the Shakespeare Tavern cut it out altogether as being too offensive.

While it would be elucidating for the case of Shakespearean scholarship to see all this played straight, Houchins determined that would make for two-hours' traffic on stage as hideous as Atlanta’s rush-hour gridlock. His strategy to do a 1727-style production, complete with stage footlights and luscious Spanish costumes, was really an excuse to present Theobald’s play as out-and-out farce, with actors demonstratively overacting and a single mole on the cheek alone serving as an effective disguise. The danger is in the troupe straying over the thin line between overacting and bad acting, and the majority of the company deftly toed that line. Especially endearing were Horne’s cape-twirling, rose-caressing antics as Henriquez and Criss borrowing the pouts, glares, consternations, gestures, and tart tongue from Spanish-language soaps to play Leonora (her fan alone had more personality than some of the other characters). While the sight gags got us through the muddled plot, overplaying a script more ridiculously written than a Monty Python skit carried us through the final scene to the last bow.

The farce strategy faltered only with the two scenes after the rape (which happens off-stage) as the audience turned downright hostile (except one gentleman laughing uproariously somewhere in the back of the theater). The hostility wasn’t just directed at Henriquez (who heard boos and hisses not wholly in the spirit of fun) but in the general discomfort of watching a just-raped woman act out her distress in such obvious faux passion. Her shtick died with the Saturday audience, garnering only a nervous chuckle here and there; but Sunday’s audience was more into interacting with the players, and as a few people greeted Violante’s distressful entrance with anĀ  “awwww,” the rest of the audience slid back into a humorous mood by the end of her scene.

However, to play those scenes—and the rest of the play—straight risks a production that would likely be even less palatable for modern audiences. The Shakespeare Tavern at least gave us a fun night of theater if not a night of good Shakespeare. And you can’t fault them for that. If there were any good Shakespeare in this play, Theobald did away with it long, long ago.

Eric Minton
June 7, 2011

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