A mystery lingers as to just who penned the not-often-presented Arden of Faversham. Thomas Kyd, Kit Marlowe, and even Billy Shakes have been nominated, with decent justifications made for each, or perhaps all three collaboratively – the play has, in fact, been added to the Shakespeare Apocrypha, a collection of works which scholars believe were, at least in part, written by the Bard. With the City Theatre Company's mounting, I found myself more interested in this question of authorship than the play itself. While it's not without its compelling elements, the overall lack of polish weighs heavily on the production.
Despite pacing issues toward the end of the first act, the script is complex and fulfilling enough to pique the interest of Elizabethan theatre fans: The Arden of the title is a prosperous businessman who has recently been given lands from an old abbey and whose wife, Alice (Bridget Farias Gates), is both cheating on him and plotting to kill him. She's hired a pair of bumbling villains to do Arden in, but they botch the job repeatedly. For such a Shakespearean-style "true crime" story, there is a distinct lack of urgency in most of the performances. It's not quite a disconnection from the text; the actors are clearly aware of what they're conveying, but with few exceptions, the actors do not carry the weight of their words – the result is more presentation than performance.
A simple, utilitarian set by Artistic Director Andy Berkovsky and Levi Gore, more function than form, does little to pull the audience into the play's world. The stage is dotted with three set pieces (one used only once, for one purpose), and they serve as the backdrop for both exterior and interior scenes, but with little visual context as to which is which. Chris McKnight's lighting design helps to distinguish, but only between day and night – the latter often too dark to see who is speaking. And director Kevin Gates' placement of the action in "modern times" is only loosely justified visually by costumer Farias Gates' somewhat modern clothing that doesn't seem connected textually with its characters (a Hawaiian shirt tucked into khaki slacks with boat shoes on Arden, for example) and not at all by the set.
That said, there are a few bright spots in the otherwise lackluster veneer. Gates' choice to play with gender in a couple of roles pays off, particularly with Franklin, a friend and confidant of Arden's. Switching the character to a female adds a lovely element of jealousy, with Franklin harboring a secret love for Arden, even as his wife plots his death. This works within the text and raises the stakes for the character, which actress Laura Ray plays well. In another originally male role, relative Austin newcomer Victoria Barton Rosenthal is simply exquisite. As Greene, also laying claim to the abbey lands that Arden has received, Barton Rosenthal is a commanding presence, in complete control of her performance at all times as she adds a layer of feminine wile to the plot to kill Arden. Beau Paul also stands out among the more skilled actors, adding texture and nuance to his role as Black Will, one of the inept hit men hired to murder Arden. And Robert Stevens as Lord Cheney not only connects well with his role, but gives a weight to his performance not quite achieved by the remainder of the cast.
That said, the performance I caught was well attended and well received by an audience willing to embrace the story being told and laugh (often inappropriately). However, one wonders how much more the audience could have received with a bit more elbow grease from Gates & Co. in engaging with the text and performance and stepping up their design game. Many of the show's shortcomings align with cut corners in the budget, particularly with the set and costumes. With 11 shows in the 2015-2016 season, City Theatre Company might find more success in focusing on quality over quantity.
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