Alice in Blunderland: Arden of Faversham’s murderously funny mishaps

Chris Johnston (left) plays the role of Black Will and John Harrell (right) is Shakebag in ASC’s Arden of Faversham. Photo by Lauren Rogers Parker Chris Johnston (left) plays the role of Black Will and John Harrell (right) is Shakebag in ASC’s Arden of Faversham. Photo by Lauren Rogers Parker

“Comfort thyself, sweet friend; it is not strange / That women will be false and wavering.”—Franklin, Arden of Faversham (Act 1, scene 1)

Maybe the scheduling was merely coincidental, but witnessing the debut performance of the early modern true-crime drama Arden of Faversham on International Women’s Day felt particularly wrong—and perhaps more comical because of it.

The anonymously written 1592 play, which in recent years has gained extra traction by crediting Shakespeare with co-authorship, remains remarkable for the depiction of one of England’s most infamous domestic tragedies, capturing a snapshot of real-world 1551 news. It’s a simple story of a lady desperate to get out of a rut: cheating wife schemes with lover to kill husband. Though the pair enlist a pack of self-interested conspirators and criminals to complete the task, each proves incompetent until near the very end of the play.

Is this straightforward work about ordinary citizens shedding blood a rare artifact about smashing the patriarchy? Did the American Shakespeare Center’s actor-led Renaissance winter season choose the play because of its frighteningly strong female lead character? Sure, the plot-propelling decision to off a husband could be taken as the ultimate expression of self-empowerment, but even the most progressive people would agree there are less severe alternatives for fixing an unsatisfying marriage than stabbing.

Alice Arden, the wife in question, is no role model—and like any great villainess, her evil disposition is what makes the piece exceptional. Played with mischievous conviction by Abbi Hawk, Alice is the sultry femme-fatale mastermind who ultimately sees her darkest wish satisfied. Behind lipstick smiles and on crossed coquettish legs, she flaunts humanity’s worst traits, those which ignorant women-haters have feared and contradictorily ascribed to the fair sex for ages: deceitfulness, capriciousness, emotional weakness, gross lust, and cold cruelty. And though it is her murdered husband Thomas for whom the play is named, her lover Mosby who hatches the last successful plan, and the retaliatory former tenant Greene who employs the hoodlums Black Will and Shakebag, Alice is clearly the one running this bitch.

Arden of Faversham may have originally been a drama—complete with requisite Elizabethan morality dooming the majority of the cast to death for their savagery and willful rebellion against the strict English hierarchy. But centuries of aging have left Arden ripe for a comedic take.

Self-costumed to the nines in threads echoing those 1930s white-gloved escapist movies about dancing urbanite aristocrats, the ASC cast squeezes yucks from the text with exquisite smoothness. Deftly, the actors freak out, fall off stage, howl in shock, and deliver deadpan looks and sly over-the-shoulder glances at the audience with precise comic timing.

As the straight men in this drama-reimagined-as-black-comedy, David Anthony Lewis mops up our pity as helpless Arden, while Rick Blunt, as Arden’s close friend Franklin, is convincingly serious and well- meaning as the voice of reason.

The ne’er-do-wells are equally wonderful. Benjamin Reed as aggravated Mosby brings rage to the role, fluctuating between anger with Alice, their adulterous situation, and the dumb luck that keeps her husband alive. Chris Johnston’s spastic, short-fused, hired henchman Black Will is mined for a fortune of clownish frenetics, and is nearly outdone by John Harrell’s rich Shakebag; pointedly played with a cartoonish wise guy accent, Harrell does genius work as the thuggish yutz. No less riotous, KP Powell in the role of devilish painter Clarke offers up big laughs from his preposterous murder formulas to his side-splitting use of protective glasses.

Despite the historically accurate laxness of being free to kick back with a few beers during the show, there’s still an unspoken reverence framing the ASC experience that was gleefully absent during this latest production. Though the cast and crew always put forth honest efforts to loosen everyone up, the atmosphere in the seats can feel a little like going to church or having been urged into a field trip by an uncomfortably familiar English professor. You notice it most when the jokes, swirled up in iambic poetics and murky 500-year-old slang, prompt the loudest audience members to crow more like they’re showing everyone how smart they are by “getting it” rather than how much of a good time they’re having. Arden is different.

No, the play doesn’t generate any PR for the virtuosity and righteousness of women, but that’s hardly the point. Arden excels thanks to the ASC cast’s inventive way with the words, and they are funnier than hell. I haven’t laughed as hard since the last time I watched Kathleen Turner prank call Mink Stole in John Waters’ Serial Mom. Could be that I just find female killers hysterical, but please don’t let my personal issues deter you from driving over to Staunton for a great time at Blackfriars.

Arden of Faversham is at Blackfriars Playhouse through April 12.

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