Students of the theatre in general and comedy in particular must see Ben Jonson’s five-act treatise on the woes of modern (1614) life in London. Lovers of all things theatrical with a penchant for having their funny bones tickled, goosed or grossed out shouldn’t miss the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s début production of this Jacobean gem. Everybody else owes it to themselves to make tracks to witness this madcap farce on the Avon if only to better understand the cliché, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
It’s no secret that director Antoni Cimolino loves this enormous work and the company that performs it. For their part, the cast and crew return the sentiment and serve up nearly three hours of wide-ranging hilarity that is a virtual catalogue of what makes us laugh (cross-reference below for an exclusively black take on the same subject).
For lawyer-cum-puppet-playwright John Littlewit (Lesson 1: funny names are easy laughs and character clues), the dreariness of writing contracts is relieved by putting the requisite knowledge acquired to write writs and one’s wits into the service of penning pithy puppet shows that appeal to the masses. Matt Steinberg lights up the stage with his self-congratulatory clever witticisms and readily serves as Jonson’s surrogate.
Lesson 2: skewering religion is always worth the risk of offending a few while delighting the many. Littlewit’s extended Puritan clan consists of wife Win (Jennifer Paterson) who, despite a strict moral code, is pregnant with their first child even as her kisses are offered by her spouse to his noble friends; her breasts are frequently comforted by other devout men. The widow Dame Purecraft (Brigit Wilson comes into her own when she lets down her hair and morality after finding the perfect madman with which to make merry) is on the prowl for her next beau. Chief suitor to Purecraft is—what else, see Lesson 1—Winwife (Christopher Prentice). Zeal-of-the-Land Busy (Juan Chioran stands tall and simultaneously preaches the gospel and salivates for pork with equally compelling—and lick smacking—conviction) revels in his self-ordained task (a former baker) of condemning the faithless (Lesson 3: the more bizarre a character’s back-story, the greater probability of its acceptance).
Rounding out the home front are the happily argumentative Quarlous (Jonathan Goad), boyish country squire Bartholomew Cokes (Trent Pardy delights in his chronic naïveté), his long-suffering servant, Wasp (Brian Tree spits out his “turd in your teeth” taunts with deliciously droll delivery), Bartholomew’s fiancée Grace Wellborn (Alana Hawley) and his much sought-after sister, Alice Overdo (Dala Badr).
Although frowned upon by civil society and deplored by Puritanical dogma, the entire collection of the hopelessly privileged are willingly bamboozled into attending the day-long commoners’ entertainment (the conceit of Littlewit’s wife having a sudden craving for pork affords him the chance of seeing his puppet play performed and the ravenous Puritans the opportunity to feed to excess).
The opening of Act II is a miracle of design (Carolyn Smith), movement (Keira Loughran) and music (Steven Page) as—before your very eyes—bare space magically morphs into the fairground. Happily, there is no attempt to employ pyrotechnics or lavish props. The ensemble fills the stage—everyone with a job to do—and the eyes are soon awash in acrobats, banners and wares before the downstage curtain unfurls to reveal: “Here be the bezt pigs she ever did roasted.” Lesson 3: The better build up to a key entry, the more likely it will succeed.
The term “take stage” hardly begins to describe Lucy Peacock’s wonderfully waddling entry as Ursula, pig-woman. From tree-trunk calves, through a waist larger than the GM bailout, to watermelon boobs, this is a pig to cry for—er, laughing, that is. In just a few seconds of visual hilarity, the tenor and tone for the rest of the way has been established. Anything goes, and it does (Lesson 4: despite professing moral superiority and disdain for the crude, most audiences revel in bathroom humour, crotch grabs and lascivious innuendo).
Observing all of this mayhem (and in a disguise that Shakespeare’s fools would adore) is Justice Overdo (every line’s a pearl from Tom McCamus—swine or otherwise). Purveyor of hobby-horses and chief puppetmaster is Leatherhead/Lantern, respectively (Cliff Saunders is a hawker for the ages). Singing ballads to distract fairgoers while an accomplice (Jesse Aaron Dwyer) cuts their purses is Stratford newcomer Quincy Armorer—a welcome addition to any company. Indeed, the show’s highlight comes from the full-ensemble when the aforesaid crooner-for-hire, Nightingale, presents his pickpocket-condemning verses even as Bartholomew loses his second. Lesson 5: Dramatic irony is never out of style.
With such a crackerjack ensemble and deft direction that makes sense of the nonsense, there’s but one thing left to say: Hey, ho! Come to the fair! JWR