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Theatre in Review: Arden of Faversham (Red Bull Theater/Lucille Lortel Theatre)

Cara Ricketts, Thomas Jay Ryan, Tony Roach. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Who wants to kill the title character of Arden of Faversham? Actually, who doesn't? The list of those plotting the murder of this prosperous bourgeois man of affairs begins with his wife, Alice, and her lover, Mosby a (horrors!) tailor whom she has hired to run her household. (Yes, the butler wants to do it.) There's also the Widow Green, furious that the land she stood to inherit from her husband has been legally granted to Arden. And then there are the henchmen: Clarke, a painter who deals in poisons, and assassins-for-hire Big Will and Shakebag, who are as inept as they are corrupt. As it happens, Arden is harder to whack than Rasputin; one scheme after another goes awry, and even when the deed is finally done, its consequences are dire, raining down disaster on one and all.

Written circa 1592, Arden of Faversham has been attributed variously to Shakespeare, Kyd, and Marlowe -- or, possibly, some combination of them. They would have every right to be incensed at such libelous suggestions, since the play is the purest of potboilers, a shameless collection of plot twists unrelated to character, utterly lacking a larger view of the world. Based on a notorious murder case from earlier in the century, it may be the era's version of those true crime movies that used to turn up on the Lifetime network. Watching the plot lurch in several directions, I was oddly reminded of such gimcrack Broadway thrillers of the 1970s as Murder Among Friends and Murder at the Howard Johnson's.

Red Bull Theater specializes in the underproduced works of Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, sometimes presenting the works straight up and other times subjecting them to considerable transformation. Here, Jeffrey Hatcher, who, last season, brilliantly turned Ben Jonson's The Alchemist into a knockabout farce, and Kathryn Walat have come up with a relatively straightforward adaptation of the original text, changing the sex of one character and filling out certain supporting roles. Director Jesse Berger and his cast have chosen to spoof the whole thing, which probably was the only way to go but doesn't make the action any more engaging. As an exercise in mayhem, it's not gripping enough; as a comedy, it lacks wit and a point of view.

As is usually the case with Red Bull productions, the cast is filled with solid performers and then some. Pros like Thomas Jay Ryan (as the put-upon Arden), Thom Sesma (as his devoted friend Franklin), and David Ryan Smith (as the wicked Big Will) are always a pleasure to have around. As murder-minded Alice, Cara Ricketts' does her best to juice up the action, practically salivating over her dirty deeds and enthusiastically pawing at Tony Roach as her low-born lover; during one scene, they remain upstage, in semi-darkness, frozen in the coital position. If she goes over the top, she is a strong, striking presence and I look forward to seeing her again. Emma Geer's sly wit is put to good use as a house maid with two suitors on a string. Zachary Fine brings an amusing comic stylization to the role of Michael, a servant torn between opposing forces.

The set design, a baronial dining room by Christopher and Justin Swader, is suitable and adapts well to other locations, thanks to the endlessly inventive, film-noir lighting of Reza Behjat. (Weirdly, the characters leave the doors open during the climactic scene, so we can take in a snowfall effect; maybe they hope Arden will freeze to death?) Mika Eubanks' costumes are a bizarre amalgam of the 21st century and the 1600s along with some touches that look oddly Victorian; it's a concept I couldn't make much sense of. Greg Pliska's sound design and original music are both suitably sinister.

It all builds to a corpse-laden climax, courtesy of a poisoned, lethal-to-the-touch crucifix; that, at least, is something you don't see every day. The finale round ups everyone's fates, with various malefactors meeting their just deserts at the hands of the authorities. But any interest in these characters gets chewed up in the various permutations of the plot. This is, at best, a curio. I can imagine scholars flocking to the Lortel for the rare chance to check out this rarely produced work, as well as those completists who love to boast about seeing everything. The general theatregoer, however, is likely to cry bloody murder. --David Barbour

(17 March 2023)

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