Silk Purse Theatre: May 2001

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside

By Thomas Middleton

Venue: Waterfront Theatre, Granville Island

Dates: 21-31 May 2001

Reviewer: Jane Penistan

A rollicking evening of Jacobean fun and games, seasoned with bawdy double entendre is the fare presented by Silk Purse Productions at the Waterfront Theatre. In A Chaste Maid in Cheapside one man/woman plays many parts. Middleton's plot is a complicated one involving husbands, wives, and mistresses, unwillingly betrothed children, the inheritance of wealth or poverty, and the ways and means by which to live with a shortage of money, and the strictures of the discipline of the church over abstinence in Lent.

In order to make the seventeenth-century language and puns more intelligible to the audience, the director, S.G. Lee elects to have an interpreter, Footnote, down stage right throughout the performance, brandishing signs or symbols. While this may be a good idea in theory, it doesn't work very well in practice as the signs often distract from the stage business and are irrelevant because of the indistinct diction of several players.

If these were not riches enough, the production features a superb Senta in Mary Jane Johnson, in lush and generous voice after a subdued entrance in her famous second act ballad. Conjuring up Nordic calm and Nordic passion with equal skill, her steely timbred soprano rose in waves, ably partnering the Dutchman that she obsessively longed for.

The simultaneous translation of the Latin discourse completely misses fire as both the Latin and English drown each other, and the wit and humour of this parody of scholarly, logical discourse is lost. The detailed description of the plot and the several characters inserted in the programme is, indeed, helpful in sorting out the confusion Middleton creates. The incredible mishmash of period and modern costume, together with much cross-dressing adds to the seething mixture.

As Allwit, the wittingly and willingly cuckholded husband, Randall Barkman, could sound more convincing in his description of his pecuniarily advantageous lifestyle and somewhat more dismayed at the prospect of losing it, and much more energetic in his schemes to preserve his status quo. Ben Eberhard makes a nice distinction between the studious Tim Goldhammer and the lovelorn Touchwood Junior. He has his best moments in his farcical scenes as a promoter. (A promoter here is interpreted as a comic policeman).

The New Orleans Opera's handsome sets are "traditional" as is the direction by Roman Hurko. This, however, was no mindless traditionalism to appease a notoriously conservative audience but tradition that works, enhancing the score's dramatic values throughout. Stephen Ross's lighting effects should be given due credit as well in a production in which so many elements came together.

Jason Harder is not a dictatorial father or a grasping goldsmith as Goldhammer, but his Tutor is nicely pedantic. John Paterson as Touchwood Senior, manipulates the plot successfully, making sure that all ends well. From the beginning he is a man who faces the difficulties that circumstance him and has the skill, energy, and guile to solve his own and his brother's problems Paterson also enjoys his role as a promoter. He is one of the audible members of the cast.

As his wife, Celia Duval, is woman of the world .... As Moll, the chaste maid, she is a rebellious teenager, who ultimately gets her own way and defeats her money-grubbing parents, who wish to marry her to the odious Sir Walter Whorehound (Lisa Dahling). Yet unbelievably, Sir Walter is not so odious to Mrs. Allwit (Norma McKnight) by whom he has six children, three of whom appear on stage as puppets.

Jessica Blossom Clark is a beguiling country lass who outwits the promoters with charming cunning. Lara Rose Tansy is a seductive Welsh woman, who sings tunefully. Abraham Jedediah's three cameo roles are a delight. As Footnote, Katherine Harris is probably the hardest working member of this large multi-character cast. She is on stage almost throughout the performance, holding signs, performing with puppets or moving furniture.

The scenes are played against a well designed and executed backdrop of a city street, and lit by lighting designer Mila Yee-Hafer.

This production has some funny moments, particularly in the christening scene and the farcical promoters episodes, but over all it demonstrates how difficult good comedy is. S. G. Lee and her company make a brave and energetic effort, and deserve praise for having the courage to undertake such a task and providing an evening of entertainment.

Performances continue at the Waterfront Theatre, Granville Island, from 21-31 May at 20.00, matinee on 27 May 27 at 14.00. Box office: Reservations only: 604.253.4740. Tickets $12 (students and seniors $10).

© 2001, Jane Penistan

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