Welcome back to another blog-exclusive review, this time of The Hidden Room’s new production, Arden of Faversham (playing through March 1st), an anonymous Elizabethan drama from 1592 that just might have been written by Shakespeare.
Beth Burns and her artistic team at The Hidden Room tend to have two modes with which they approach the classic texts that they produce—explorations of historical theatrical modes (such as specific gestures and accents), and contemporary stagings crafted through the lens of a particular era or style. Personally, I tend to find more excitement in the latter (like last year’s excellent glam rock presentation of Aphra Behn’s The Rover), and that’s exactly what Arden of Faversham is.
From the moment that a rockabilly-style four-piece band plays “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” we find ourselves inside of a late 50s/early 60s milieu, mixing mods, beats, and greasers in a delightfully comedic dark romp. Though the original playwright likely intended to create a domestic tragedy, dramatizing the real-life murder of businessman Thomas Arden, Burns has clearly crafted this production as a layered, ambiguous comedy with a bleakly humorous ending. The dissonance between the comedy of the performers and the earnestness of the text creates a delightfully hilarious frisson, and creates as a satire of the mores and sensibilities of our own modern era.
A true ensemble piece without any one central character, Arden of Faversham succeeds on the strength of a diverse cast who know when to play it straight and when to mug it up. Rommel Sulit (as Arden), Jill Swanson (as his wife, Alice), and Toby Minor as Mosby (Alice’s lover) form the love triangle at the heart of the story, and ground the events of the play—revolving around the attempts by various parties to murder Arden—with a straightforward sincerity that allows the rest of the colorful characters to shine, comedically.
The scene-stealers throughout, though, are the duo of Jason Newman and Judd Farris as Black Will and Shakebag, respectively, a pair of villainous ne’er-do-wells hired to commit the murder. Between Newman’s Fonzie-esque greaser accent (which never fails to elicit laughs when spitting out pitch-perfect Elizabethan language) and Farris’ thick, threating Scottish brogue, the two actors take what might otherwise be distracting side characters and turn them into the highlight of the production.
Arden of Faversham may be an old, lesser-known text, but The Hidden Room’s production imbues it with a fierce, fresh comedic sensibility that will speak to audiences who typically couldn’t care less about Elizabethan drama.