It’s no secret that “the theatre” has had trouble over the last century shaking its wildly inaccurate reputation of being elitist, pretentious, irrelevant, solemn and dull and Elizabethan and Jacobean Theatre have, no doubt, borne the brunt of this fallacy. I wish that everyone who holds this opinion could head over to the Bus Stop Theatre and check out Vile Passéist Theatre’s production of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, which is playing there until July 10th, 2011 because it really captures the bawdy, joyful, cheeky and wild spirit of the days when theatres were centers of popular entertainment for the masses where frivolity and lasciviousness ran rampant.
Ben Jonson was a contemporary of William Shakespeare, who was popular and modestly successful as a playwright in his own time, although his works have since become eclipsed by Shakespeare’s and fell completely out of favour with theatre companies and audiences in the 18th Century. Jonson was a scrappy figure, one who was in and out of jail for most of his life, and he writes with a broader stroke than Shakespeare did, making his dialogue easier to understand for modern audiences and his characters in Bartholomew Fairmore like rogue cartoons.
The story centers on the Bartholomew Fair, a market festival that lasted two weeks in the late summer from 1133 to 1855, which became synonymous with loose morals, impropriety and heathenism. The story is hinged on mistaken identities, the pursuit of love and money and social and political satire but is less interested in its twisty plot than in the depiction of its juicy and larger than life characters. In this way, you could see Jonson’s style in this play as an early precursor to a writer like Charles Dickens, who also often used humour in the expression of social commentary.
This production is directed by Vile Passéist’s Artistic Director Dan Bray, who manages to manoeuvre an impressive thirty person cast in a relatively small space, without any sense of it becoming too cramped or crowded, but reflecting the bustling and electric ambiance of a fair. Bray does a great job of subtlety guiding his audience through this rollicking, and sometimes chaotic tale, in a cohesive and clear way. This is enriched by the cast’s firm grasp of Jonson’s language. They speak their lines with such casual, conversational ease, often giving them modern intonations, which make the entire play not just easier to follow, but also easier to immerse into. Bray shines brightest as a director in his sharp comic timing, especially in the physical comedy, which is sprinkled generously throughout the play. Of all the Elizabethan/Jacobean comedies I have seen in Nova Scotia, this one strikes the nicest balance of being clownish, lewd and at times absurd without becoming too stagey and continuously “wink wink, nudge nudging” the audience.
There are some truly fantastic performances in this production that deserve attention. Chris O’Neill and Rebecca Currie-Morrison make an alluring couple as John and Win (-the-fight) Littlewit, an amateur playwright and his wife who are, arguably, at the center of the story. Claire St-Francois plays Win’s mother, the Widow Purecraft, with spunk, tapping into a wild, lustfulness that mirrors nicely the metaphor of the Fair. Eric Fitzpatrick plays Bartholomew Cokes, esquire, with all the gusto of a tornado. At times he may be a bit too melodramatic, but overall he gives Cokes the innocence and exhilaration of a hyperactive child. Colleen MacIsaac gives a pitch-perfect performance as Joan, the gingerbread seller. She is subtle, but I found myself continually intrigued by her. There is something equally as notable in Missy Ryan’s Moon-calf, a tapster at a secret brothel.
Dan Bray gives a hilarious performance as Zeal-of-the-land Busy, a Puritan preacher and renowned hypocrite, intent on casting judgement and disparaging remarks on everyone else at the Fair. He plays much of the part reminiscent to Sam Eagle and then throws an uproarious temper tantrum while fighting with a puppet. Padraigh MacDonald is both endearing and rowdy as Trouble-All, a madman and former constable. Jesse Robb elicits laughter just from standing still, unspeaking, as Humphrey “Numps” Wasp, a character who reminded me a lot of Shakespeare’s Malvolio from Twelfth Night. He is the classic straight man in this comedy and Robb is absolutely genius at often being the funniest person onstage while playing a character who seems utterly devoid of sense of humour. It’s a beautiful performance to watch. Ona Archibald plays Ursla, a pig woman, and you should all write her name down because I guarantee you will be seeing it again and soon. She is a marvel to watch and shows bright potential to become a strong force in Haligonian theatre. The most nuanced performance in this production is Pasha Ebrahimi’s Tom Quarlous, the suave and greedy mastermind con artist and drunkard. He is another actor that I hope to see much more of onstage in Halifax in the future.
There is wonderful jaunty period music inter-spliced throughout the play, most of which was written by Mike Chandler, who makes a fantastic minstrel. The costume pieces, a neat medley between period and modern dress, were designed by Matthew Peach and Kelley Bray made the fanciful puppets featured in the second act.
For those who believe that a 400 year old play cannot be relevant for modern audiences, I remind you that the Puritans, whose increasing influence is so mocked and chastised throughout this play, went on to close all the playhouses in London in 1642. This happened because the people holding the most power in England were afraid of the artists since their plays were hotbeds not only for such depravity as sexual innuendo, cross dressing and racy language, but also for political discourse. It was at the theatres where the people gathered for entertainment en masse that were places where ideas, even radical and new ones, were encouraged, fostered and hatched. In 2008 Margaret Atwood wrote a piece for The Globe and Mail about Stephen Harper’s government saying his policies show contempt and disdain for the Arts. She writes, “Every budding dictatorship begins by muzzling the artists, because they’re a mouthy lot and they don’t line up and salute very easily. Of course, you can always get some tame artists to design the uniforms and flags and the documentary about you, and so forth – the only kind of art you might need – but individual voices must be silenced, because there shall be only One Voice: Our Master’s Voice.”
Jonson’s 400 year old play could not be more relevant here in Canada in 2011 and blessedly, it is one that allows us to laugh in the face of our Puritan repressors and to be reminded that we all belong to a great tradition that has endured for thousands of years and undoubtedly the last laugh will be ours.
I will warn you also that Bartholomew Fair is at the Bus Stop Theatre, which has fans but no air conditioning, so it is quite warm. The play is 3.5 hours long, but it doesn’t drag. I would suggest bringing some water in a bottle with you, although there is a liberal amount of ice cold water provided at the theatre. Don’t let these factors scare you away, theatre is an adventure! Don’t be a chicken, be a rock star.
Performances for Bartholomew Fair are at the Bus Stop Theatre
(2203 Gottingen Street, Halifax)
July 8, 8:00: Gala Night (pre-show talk at 7:45, post-show festivities and snacks!)
July 9, 2:00: Matinee
July 9, 8:00: Evening Performance
July 10, 8:00: Closing Night
Tickets can be reserved by calling 902.802.5223 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tickets are $15 Artist/Senior/Student/Underwaged; $20 Regular
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