Sympathy is something that must be earned. True, in many works of fiction, the protagonists instantly earn your pity by virtue of being the main characters, and yet sometimes they don’t deserve it. True, some authors toy with this idea of unconditional compassion from the audience the more they reveal about their characters (i.e. Jez Butterworth’s The Night Heron and Martin McDonagh;s The Beauty Queen of Leenane), yet these scenarios are only effective when we are given ample evidence as to why we should give our sympathies to these individuals. Otherwise, the whole affair becomes nothing more than witnessing the malevolent actions of detestable people.
Published in 1592 and based on a true story, Arden of Faversham, arguably the first script for the stage to be classified by the ‘domestic tragedy’ sub-genre, is an anonymously written play in which the titular Arden is unknowingly made a target for assassination by his wife, Alice, and her lover, Mosbie. Arden then follows the series of attempts on Arden’s life as more individuals get entangled in the murder plot.
I’ll say right away that if Arden of Faversham suffers from one issue it’s an inconsistency of tone. Naturally, tragedies need moments of levity to ease the tension, but Arden tries to walk the line between comedy and tragedy without feeling like either. The result is that the humorous moments feel out of place and the tragic moments are unpleasant and uncomfortable. For example, a minor character named Clarke (Levi Gore) is utilized solely as a tool for Alice’s attempts on Arden’s life, but Clarke always appears dressed in a purposefully/stereotypically nerdy fashion (think 1980s-90s stereotypical TV nerd). True, the costume gave me an instant idea as to Clarke’s personality, but given that his role in the plot was based around supplying deadly poisons and the like to Alice it felt a tad jarring. However, this inconsistency revels itself mostly through the ruffian characters Black Will and Shakebag (Beau Paul and Nathan Ford respectively). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Paul and Ford’s performances but their characters were forced to juggle the roles of insidious killers and comic bumblers. It becomes difficult to decipher their scenes because we never know if we’re dealing with the clowns or the monsters (i.e. Black Will receives a slapstick head injury at one point, but is then seen with bandages covering a seemingly grievous wound for the rest of the play).
As you may have inferred from above, I struggled to find Alice (Bridget Farias Gates) sympathetic in her actions. Gates herself gave a decent performance, but all the cards were stacked against her favor. Alice makes a point that her husband preys off the poor and therefore should perish, but I never got the sense that she wanted him dead for any reason other than romantic convenience. Even the moments in which she seems to doubt the plan come out of nowhere and (unexpectedly) revert almost instantly. Her partner Mosbie (Nolan Blair) was in the same predicament, though between the two Gates gave the much stronger performance. That being said, J. Kevin Smith (Arden) gave the strongest performance of any of the characters, maintaining a sense of weariness and anger upon his face even when jovial, so perhaps I’m simply biased in favor of his character’s prolonged life onstage.
In keeping with the theme of Arden, the technical aspects walked a fine line themselves. Director Kevin Gates stated in his director’s note that this production of Arden was to be set in modern times as a means to shine a negative light upon Arden’s preying of the poor, certainly a poignant subject given today’s economic climate. And yet, other than the costume choices (designed by Bridget Farias Gates) there was little else to suggest this is set in modern times, and even then the costumes ranged from Hawaiian shirts to peasant rags to Mosbie’s curious attire which struck me as the hybrid of a greaser and a hipster in the 80s. Andy Berkovsky’s set certainly added to the production by giving just enough doors, walls, and passageways to suggest that the set could be indoors or outdoors, both of which it is used for. Though the most irksome design choices had to come from the sound department (Kevin Gates) for its inconsistency. For the majority of Act I there is nothing in regards to music, but near the end of the act suddenly every scene is flooded with incidental music to underscore monologues (usually with the sound abruptly cut off at the end of the clip) that ranged from ethereal to lounge. I found myself often distracted by this music, wondering why this was suddenly so prevalent in the production. What finally did it for me was when Arden’s bleak ending was immediately followed up by Love and Marriage (as heard in Married… with Children), a clear attempt to ease the tension for the audience before they left, but resulted in a complete shattering of tone.
It’s a shame that so many little issues built up in this production because there are aspects of it that I quite liked. Bailey Parker (Susan) was constantly driven and immersed whenever she was onstage (which unfortunately wasn’t too often), and Cody Jenkins’ (Michael) physicality was excellent, particularly in his facial animation. However, I ultimately couldn’t sympathize with the goals of the protagonists, and asked myself why I should mentally defend the actions of murderers. I can sympathize with a character like Macbeth, despite his wicked deeds, because his character arc is steady and believable, plus his guilty moments seem legitimate. I never got that sensation with Alice and Mosbie, and when sympathy for your main characters is absent then it becomes difficult to stay invested in their plight.
Arden of Faversham continues playing at The City Theatre Company every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm until May 22nd.