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Thursday, 18 June 2009

Bartholomew Fair: Bandits and Bilkers and Bawds, Oh My!

Bartholomew Fair, by Ben Jonson
Directed by Antoni Cimolino, music by Stephen Page
Featuring Jonathan Goad, Tom McCamus, Trent Pardy, Lucy Peacock, Christopher Prentice, Cliff Saunders, Brigit Wilson

The Story: A group of Puritans go off to the raucous Bartholomew Fair with various motives in mind, in particular to uncover criminal activities, only to be robbed and manipulated into being criminals themselves. Having been bettered by the wily stall-keepers at the fair, the Puritans confess their hypocrisy and join the crowd for a feast.

Pickpockets, shysters, prostitutes, and pimps with the dialogue to match - this comedy is not set in any ethereal forest. Ben Johnson set his plays in the seedier side of London life than Shakespeare did, and in no play is that more apparent than Bartholomew Fair. A sprawling play with an urban setting and at least 25 distinct characters, it is an ambitious play to be sure, and it was very ambitious of Mr. Cimolino to stage it at the Tom Patterson Theatre, where it threatens to overpower the smaller stage – it even spills over the edges and into the audience from time to time.

Other than being somewhat overwhelming to those used to more staid productions, Bartholomew Fair is sheer pleasure. Deemed “the Conservatory show”, as the younger actors from the Birmingham Conservatory get to cut their teeth alongside Stratford veterans, there are so many impressive moments it is impossible to relay them all. So, in no particular order…

For total hilarity, there is Lucy Peacock as Ursla, proprietress of the pork-stall. As befitting the central carnie around whom all the others revolve, she is bedecked in a colossal fat-suit, and she obviously revels in its grotesqueness – and if she goes over-the-top just a tad, in this case it just adds to the merriment.

As the naïve Bartholomew Cokes, a fellow with the attention-span of a gnat, Trent Pardy abandons himself to the character, just as the character abandons himself to the excitement of the fair. Mr. Pardy carries the audience into his tide of enthusiasm, a fervency which cannot be broken – not even with the loss of his money, sword, jacket, gloves, hat, marriage license, and finally fiancée.

While the first half culminates in a musical number that encapsulates a fair atmosphere – singing, dancing, stilt-walkers, acrobats, ribbons and flags flying, with even the more reserved gentility finally absorbed into the fun – the second half is nearly stolen by Cliff Saunders as Lantern Leatherhead, a puppeteer who performs the play-within-a-play. As his cohort Joan Trash, Kelli Fox looks and acts just wretched the crippled gingerbread seller, but she has a deliciously sly secret. And Jonathan Goad moves around the stage and audience taking it all in as Quarlous, a puppet-master of his own making.

As Dame Purecraft, Brigit Wilson is the prettiest Puritan that ever graced the Fair, and of the four characters who repent near the end of the play, only she and Tom McCamus as Justice Overdo find the time to properly convey how foolish they have been – the confessions of the other two, Waspe and Zeal (Brian Tree and Juan Chioran), get lost in the action and are easily missed, though their overall performances are equally comical.

The children in the play, Abigail Winter-Culliford, Christopher Van Hagen and Dawson Lott each play a child of a different class – but once they find each other in the midst of all the other action, they become fast friends, far faster than the adults around them accept each other. This small detail may go unnoticed, but it speaks volumes to the underlying theme of the play.

Opinions will differ regarding this play, and descriptions will vary wildly, but there is only one adjective that truly suits its resulting kaleidoscope: FUN. Watching this production of Bartholomew Fair is akin to riding a Tilt-a-Whirl at the mid-way: its fast-paced story is accompanied by a myriad of memorable characters, all of whom are distinctively and, in one notable case, enormously dressed. The story may be a little convoluted to follow as it moves at break-neck speed, but that is the program notes are a great assistance. A little advice: sit back, let go, and relish the enveloping chaos – it is the best way to enjoy such a ride.

Bartholomew Fair continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until October 2, 2009.

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