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A Mad World, My Masters

Art and Burlesque, Past, Present, and Future

By Thomas Middleton
American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.,
Saturday, March 30, 2012, C 5-6 (middle stalls)
Actors' Renaissance Season

The character of Follywit in a red dress over his regular outfit and a hat with a veil
Gregory Jon Phelps as Dick Follywit desguised as a courtesan, in A Mad World, My Masters at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Photo by Lauren D. Rogers, American Shakespeare Center.

Anybody who thinks R-rated culture is an outgrowth of the liberal 1960s and yearns for the perceived decency of good old days has never seen or read a Thomas Middleton play—or many plays by his contemporaries, for that matter, including one William Shakespeare. Just as the current box office hit 21 Jump Street is in-your-face raunchy comedy, but played with a sweetness of heart by its stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, et al., so is A Mad World, My Masters a bawdy romp of subtle and not-so-subtle sexual jokes, played with a sense of soul by its stars Daniel Kennedy and Gregory Jon Phelps, et al.

Watching both modern movie and 400-year-old play were laugh-a-minute passages of time well spent.

As part of the Actors' Renaissance Season, the cast puts on A Mad World without a director, using only cue scripts, costuming themselves, and rehearsing a half-dozen days at most. Faced with Middleton's not-very-discreet script, the actors decided to play all out with over-the-top portrayals of Middleton's over-the-top characters who bear names like Sir Bounteous Progress, Dick Follywit, Master Shortrod Harebrain, Master Penitent Brothel, Sir Andrew Polecat, and Frank Gullman (that last is a courtesan). If you are new to Shakespeare and his contemporaries and might think these actors were imposing their early 21st century dirty minds on early 17th century classical theater, consider the scene where the jealous Master Harebrain eavesdrops on his wife's encounter with Penitent Brothel in Gullman's chambers. As Mistress Harebrain and Brothel make loud, ecstatically passionate love behind the curtain, Gullman reinterprets their moans, titters, and excited shouts to fool Master Harebrain into thinking he's overhearing a pious conversation. This scene anticipates similarly memorable moments in The Four Seasons, When Harry Met Sally and the American Pie movies.

It's a brave cast, my friends, who put on this Brave World, My Master. At the forefront was Daniel Kennedy as Sir Bounteous Progress, a Florida retiree with eyebrows sprouting like tufts of grass and wearing a too-small jogging suit ending many inches above the ankles, his waistband forever tugged up as high as the ribs. The tight, thin material also left little to the imagination concerning Sir Progress's bounteousness. Miriam Donald, eight months pregnant in real life, played Frank Gullman, and feigning sickness in one scene, she yanked up her dress and squatted over a bedpan with vocal and facial expressions (her face actually turned red) to complete the image. Brandi Rhome was a demur Mistress Harebrain (though she let loose vocally along with John Harrell's Penitent Brothel behind the curtain), but when she appeared to Brothel as Succubus the devil, Rhome performed a lap-dance-like exhortation. Follywit's three henchmen described Progress's whore (who turned out to be Frank Gullman) by using a chest as a prop for their graphic visuals of sexual intercourse; let's just say that all three men, played by Chris Johnston, Benjamin Curns, and Sarah Fallon, really got excited about that chest.

Bravery was not just in the display of such bawdiness, though; it was in decisions the actors made to portray their characters. Penitent Brothel is a pious man who gives in to his sexual urges to commit adultery with Mistress Harebrain and then uses his own repentance (privately—he never publically admits his sin) to cast aspersions on his onetime lover while forming a bond of friendship with Master Harebrain (René Thornton Jr.), the man he cuckolded. Harrell dressed his Penitent Brothel in sweater vests and large glasses—an image that seemed to borrow from some news images we've seen of late. Allison Glenzer played Frank Gullman's mother in Snooki-like manner, with tight sweatsuit, big hair, and a Jersey-tinged accent. Jeremy West's constable, bound to a chair as part of the play's end scene, remained bound during the three curtain calls and eventually pushed his chair off-stage after the other actors had left him.

Gregory Jon Phelps played Dick Follywit, Sir Bounteous's grandson who schemes Sir Bounteous out of his wealth in a series of set pieces that make up the play's main plot. Though he did don a dress (poorly) to masquerade as Frank Gullman for one of his scams, the most embarrassing moments Phelps endured were speaking some lame puns Middleton had written for him. But with a play that is as much a burlesque as it is classic theater, the troupe engaged in the burlesque tradition of playing with and not just to the audience, and Phelps' Follywit became something of the show's emcee, endearing himself so much to us that we groaned good naturedly for him whenever he spoke his bada-boom lines.

What's most important, though, is that Phelps himself did not bada-boom the lines. His expression upon speaking them was more of a “help me out here, people.” That's the deftness of craft this ASC troupe possesses that makes performances such as this authentic theater and not merely comedy club sketches. As over-the-top as the portrayals were, the actors yet maintained the discipline to pull their characters back from the precipice of over-ridiculousness. Kennedy's Bounteous maintained his dignity despite his eyebrows and constantly falling victim to scams. Glenzer kept her Snooki in check (she was not near as ridiculous as the real Snooki, in fact) and spoke one of the play's few verse passages with just a hint of Jersey that made it both funny and poetic. Follywit's three henchmen were clowns, but Fallon, Curns, and Johnson gave each individual personalities, and when they were bound back to back their attempt at pretending to be players in Follywit's final scheme was charmingly funny.

American Shakespeare Center casts, using the lessons they've learned from performing original—practice Shakespeare, play to that space between the reality within the play and the reality that this is a play. It's not just playing with a wink or mugging for cheap laughs; it's keeping in character while the actor knows he's a character in a play with an audience watching and reacting—and so the actor plays not only for but to and with that reaction. In doing so, we become complicit in the whole experience, becoming part of the play, parcel to the performance. Near the end of A Mad World, My Masters, an alarm on the watch Follywit had stolen from Sir Bounteous sounded, revealing him as the thief, but in one last attempt to fool his grandfather, Phelps' Follywit and his henchmen pointed at a college-age kid sitting on one of the gallant stools. The kid automatically held up his hands in a “not me” gesture. He wasn't acting, he was genuinely reacting. You can't get that in a movie theater of kids watching 21 Jump Street. Unfortunately, you also seldom get that kind of visceral involvement in stage theaters that stick with the live-movie-mode of theatrical experience.

The burlesque tradition is really a theatrical tradition going back to modern theater's roots in the Elizabethan age and Commedia del Arte conventions. That theatrical tradition shifted format with the evolution of electricity and special effects, the rise of cinema and a sense that live theater had to compete with movie houses by emulating films, and the advent of method acting, all of which built the fourth wall separating actors from audiences. The lessons coming out of the ASC's performances (and other theaters, such as the New American Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta and the Maryland Shakespeare Festival's Bare Bard Repertory) are not only that text-centric Shakespeare is interesting and exciting theater, but that original practice can be applied to theater in general and ultimately entice new and younger audiences.

The generation of patrons who long accepted and even appreciated that fourth wall is aging. Younger generations are used to a world of reality TV, virtual games concocting constant surprises, the immediacy of news via the Internet, and their own participation in newsmaking people, places, and events via social networks. Interactivity is in their DNA. Some like live theater enough to accept that fourth wall if it's there. However, in my observation, many more are digging the interactive environment of original-practice Shakespeare (and his contemporaries) when they are exposed to it. What's past may be the future for theater.

Eric Minton
April 2, 2012

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