BWW Review: ARDEN OF FAVERSHAM Slays at The Hidden Room Theatre
ARDEN OF FAVERSHAM is an Elizabethan play that depicts the true murder of the Master of Faversham by his own wife Alice, her lover Mosby, and the two thugs they hire to kill him. Entered into the Register of the Stationers Company in 1592, it is thought to have been written - at least partially - by the bard himself. There are many aspects of the play that bring Shakespeare's voice to light, giving credence to the literary mystery. A tale filled with lies, deceit, and mishaps, ARDEN OF FAVERSHAM is a classic domestic tragedy that exposes the worst qualities of humanity. Lust, greed, dishonesty, and a complete lack of morality are at the core of this delicious comedy.
The play opens with Thomas Arden, confiding in his friend Franklin that he suspects his wife Alice is having an affair. Franklin, brilliantly played by Todd Kassens, is not a fan of Alice or women in general as "it is not strange, that women will be false and wavering". To appease Arden's righteous stance, he advises him to be patient and kind as "for women when they may will not, but being kept back, straight grow outrageous". Nevertheless, Arden confronts Alice and her lover Mosby about the affair but they both spin a web of mistruths denying any wrong-doing. When Arden and Franklin go to London on business, Alice conspires with Mosby to murder her husband. The pair enlists a troupe of characters of ambiguous virtue to assist in the murder. After a series of failed attempts on Arden's life, the band of would-be murderers gets together in the manor for a final assault on the unsuspected master of the house and brings this tragedy to an end.
At the center of the story is Thomas Arden. A disliked but successful businessman who has taken advantage of the Restoration to make his fortune, trading in former monastic properties dissolved by Henry VIII. Arden (played with poise and regality by Rommel Sulit) is presented as an easy-to-fool, arrogant, wealthy man that believes any story he is told as long as it helps keep the appearance of male power and strength. Incredulous of the rumor that his wife is having an affair with a lowly steward, he is fooled by a series of lies and deceptions that ultimately lead to his demise.
The mastermind behind the plot, Mistress Alice Arden, is described in the historical text as a conniving witch, a gentlewoman that would stop at nothing to get what she wants. "Love is God and marriage is but words", she says nonchalantly as if giving herself justification for murder. Alice is a multi-dimensional and complex character and Jill Swanson (Alice), is a guilty pleasure to watch. She portrays the malicious protagonist with skillful delight, making her a likable character and enlisting us all as willing accomplices to her treachery. "'Tis fearful sleeping in a serpent's bed", reflects Mosby (played to perfection by Toby Minor) when he realizes that the cunning woman for whom he is willing to commit murder, should not be trusted. As Alice sighs and bounces around the stage, Ms. Swanson's outstanding acting chops leave no doubt that Alice will betray her man as soon as he no longer serves her desires.
Leading the band of goons, is Michael, a young man who will do pretty much anything to gain his love interest's favor. He is on board with the plan to kill Arden from the beginning and although at times he expresses fears and doubts about the endeavor, lust and greed drive him to follow through. Austin Hanna delivers an engaging performance as Michael. He makes the character redeemable but ambiguous, and he ultimately brings up the darkness that earns him the death penalty.
A satirical ensemble of misfits completes the cast with Zac Carr (Clarke), Jay Fraley (Green), Jason Newman (Black Will), and Judd Farris (Shakebag). With caricature physicality, over-the-top accents, and absurd stupidity, the scenes with Newman and Farris reminded me of the comedic genius of The Three Stooges. A unique character in this play is the band. It is constantly on stage and serves multiple purposes. It performs songs to enable quick changes between scenes, provides additional cast members to the play, and it adds background music to augment the overall theatrical experience. One band member worth highlighting is Amber Quick (Susan), whose multi-talents are a gift to ARDEN OF FAVERSHAM.
Rooted in a comical but tragic murder mystery and aided by a colorful set of characters and an intelligent book, ARDEN OF FAVERSHAM is a hidden gem at The Hidden Room Theatre. A classic Elizabethan comedy of errors where dark desires drive people to make wrong decisions that turn into misadventures with a tragic ending for everyone.
Note on the costumes and the music: The use of 1960's costumes and music, was an interesting creative choice. It took me a little while to adjust to the contradiction between Shakespearean English and 1960's visuals but it certainly made the play feel more real, easily connecting this rich and witty literary text with a contemporary audience.
ARDEN OF FAVERSHAM By Anonymous
The Hidden Room Theatre
311 7th Street. Austin, TX
Directed by Beth Burns
Dramaturgy by Dr. Eric Rasmussen and Dr. Ian de Jong
Costume Design by Aaron Flynn
Dance Choreography by Kelly Hasandras
Fight Choreography by Toby Minor
House Band/Chorus The Worry Folk