The Merry Devil of Edmonton
With The Merry Devil of Edmonton, Hidden Room Theatre resurrects an odd comedy of Shakespeare's day
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Nov. 7, 2014
The Apocrypha Project: The Merry Devil of EdmontonYork Rite Masonic Hall, 311 W. Seventh
For a theatrical outing on All Hallows' Eve, The Merry Devil of Edmonton opened with plenty of promise. No sooner were we introduced to Peter Fabell, a scholar who traffics in the dark arts, than a demon burst into his chamber to say that, according to the unholy contract Fabell had signed (in his own blood, natch!), the hour had come for the occultist to shift his permanent address from just north of London to Hell. When the fiend declined to give him an extension on the deal, Fabell asked for just enough time to wrap up a few business matters and offered it a seat. The demon obliged, unaware that Fabell had steered it to his "necromantic chair," a piece of furniture with the unique ability to hold the infernal immobile. His tormentor trapped, the wily Fabell was able to negotiate seven more years on Earth for the demon's release. The scene played like a sly spoof of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus – which had been a hit for "Kit" and first published around the time this play premiered – with the entertainment factor enhanced in the Hidden Room Theatre's staged reading by Ryan Crowder's suavity as Fabell and by James Callas Ball's demon moving creepily about in a full-body skeleton costume.
And that was pretty much all the "merry devilry" to be had in this obscure 17th century play. From there, the story took an abrupt left turn into domestic comedy, with a father scheming to keep his daughter away from her beloved long enough to arrange a more prosperous match. When Dad's plot to sequester her in a convent was overheard, a counterplot was launched involving folks in disguise, trumped-up charges of poaching, swapping signs at inns, and yet more misdirection. Fabell was a key player in all these shenanigans, but, as he noted in his last speech, he never even had to resort to spells or conjurations to help the lovers stay together. In other words, the delightfully spooky opening set us up for ... absolutely nothing. It was like watching Indiana Jones make that thrilling escape from that South American temple and then spend the rest of Raiders of the Lost Ark on campus playing Cupid for the college's star quarterback and head cheerleader.
How the script came to this crazy state is anyone's guess, since little information survives about just when it premiered, who actually wrote it, and whether the surviving version is complete. It may have been a run-of-the-mill rom-com onto which that first scene and title was tacked to steal a little box-office magic from Marlowe's Faustus. (Those Elizabethan theatres were nothing if not commercial enterprises.) We're chiefly interested in the play today because it's been attributed to William Shakespeare – indeed, Hidden Room presented it last week as part of The Apocrypha Project, a reading of three plays credited to the Bard. (The others were Arden of Faversham and Mucedorus.) On the one hand, The Merry Devil shows little of Shakespeare's dramaturgical finesse and style. On the other, the play's country characters and farcical machinations echo those of another domestic comedy he penned with "Merry" in the title, so who knows?
What I can say for sure after seeing The Merry Devil of Edmonton as conjured from limbo by Hidden Room sorceress Beth Burns and her theatrical spirits is that contemporary thespians can still have a grand old time making it play. And they provide an invaluable service to lovers of the stage by doing so. A forgotten script might lie dry and dusty on the page, but actors know the magic for reanimating such inert texts. And when they resurrect a play like The Merry Devil, they may not always give us a lost classic, but they do always give us a window into a lost culture, into what stories engaged its people, what made them laugh. To let us glimpse that is magical indeed.