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Every Man In His Humour at the American Shakespeare Center

Posted by: CEWBJ Team 3 years, 11 months ago

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Contribution by Christopher Highley, Ohio State University

On March 20, 2015, I had the good fortune to see a production of Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour at the America Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Theater in Staunton, Virginia.  The ASC actors were performing Every Man as part of their annual Renaissance season that included The Taming of the Shrew, The Rover, The White Devil, and Mother Bombie.  As they do each Renaissance season, the twelve actors (8 men and 4 women) recreated as best they could the staging conditions of early modern drama.  The actors directed themselves, had few rehearsals, and in some cases, according to the program notes, used ‘cue scripts that contain only their own lines and their cues.’   In this stunning replica of early modern London’s second Blackfriars theatre (1596-1642), the lights remain on during performance (they are electric and not candles like in the new Wanamaker theater), audience members sit on stage on gallant stools, and the actors regale the audience with music and song before and after the play and during the interval.

In the hands of this multi-talented cast, Every Man came alive in ways I had never imagined.   For example, the foolish would-be gallant Master Stephen appears at the beginning of the play with a cudgel in one hand and a bag in the other containing his hawk. When Captain Bobadill gives Master Matthew – another gull and would-be gallant – a fencing lesson, he strikes exaggerated poses and caresses his pupil in ways that draw a laugh from the audience and call his machismo into question.  Later on, when Bobadill and his gang stumble drunkenly around the stage, one of them demands a stool from an onstage ‘gallant,’ while another vomits in a bowl held by a second audience member.

The characters’ comic humours are especially well realized by the jealous husband Kitely and his irascible brother-in-law Downright.  When Kitely stands alone onstage lamenting the inevitable infidelity of his beautiful young wife, he ends by fixing a male audience member in his stare, pointing, and saying ‘beware.’ Downright’s anger at the antics of Bobadill and the other ‘bragging rascals’ mounts steadily until he explodes and thrashes Bobadill with his ever-present club.  Like all good comic beatings of the Punch and Judith variety, this one appears to end, but then abruptly starts again, and again. There seems no end to Downright’s rage. In performance, Downright’s thrashing of Bobadill is all the more satisfying because John Darrell, the actor playing Downright, also doubles as the water-carrier Cobb, who is himself thrashed by Bobadill in an earlier scene for insulting the latter’s beloved tobacco.

Brainworm, the servant to Old Knowell, was brilliantly realized by the chameleon-like Allison Glenzer. Glenzer’s husky voice and chemistry with the audience proved perfect for the disguises Brainworm assumes, first of a discharged soldier down on his luck, and later as a bluff city constable. Her costume choices also worked perfectly for these disguises: as the soldier, she raised and lowered her eye patch to move between her two identities, and as a constable she looked like a Keystone Cop. The costumes worn by the actors, like the songs they performed, were eccentrically eclectic and captured the spirit of rarly modern costuming practices that mixed old and new, foreign and familiar styles. Justice Clement and his sidekick introduced another sartorial twist by appearing and sounding like sheriffs out of the old American ‘Wild West.’

Finally, like the actors who first performed Every Man In, the ASC troupe enjoyed a creative license that could take the audience by surprise.  One especially clever innovation was to substitute Kitely’s final speech renouncng his jealousy with Othello’s final lines acknowledging himself as ‘the base Iudean.’ This invocation of Shakespeare not only reminded us how jealousy can be the stuff of tragedy as well as comedy, but also how the plays of Jonson, Shakespeare, and their contemporaries were so closely interwoven.

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