By Molly Cox
Arden of Faversham is a melodramatic true-crime story that has aged surprisingly well. The play was written way back in the 1590’s and is based on the real murder of Thomas Arden of Faversham that shocked the English public in 1551. It is part of the Shakespeare Apocrypha, a group of plays and poems that are sometimes credited to Shakespeare, but with little or no evidence he actually wrote them. There were many playwrights in Elizabethan times, and many scholars agree that it’s probably wishful thinking to hope that a mysterious piece was written by someone famous like Shakespeare simply because we have no surviving record of the true author. That being said, it is as fabulously fun to speculate about who wrote it as the play itself is to watch.
Alice Arden (Victoria Reinsel) is a moody and unhinged adulteress who wants her rich husband dead more than anything in the world. Reinsel, clearly a seasoned actress, brilliantly transitions from lusty, to homicidal, to wracked with despair and guilt in seconds. Her husband on the other hand, Arden (Robert Leembruggen) seems like a pretty boring guy. Leembrugger gives an understated performance, playing a shrewd businessman whose tragic flaw is trusting his conniving wife. Alice’s lover is a young, low-born upstart named Mosby (Willem Krumich). With Arden’s untimely death, Alice hopes to keep her money turn her formerly low class boyfriend into a second husband. She employs the services of another enemy of her husband, Greene (Ian Armstrong). Greene has vowed revenge on Arden for taking his land, and knows where to find some hit-men.
Class disparity is central to the conflict. Certainly, the driving force behind Arden’s doom is that his wife and her lover want him out of the way so they can be together. However, Arden also makes an enemy of Mosby by constantly reminding him of his low birth. He also gains the hatred of men like Greene, who feel he is a fat-cat, treating less wealthy men unfairly.
And so, for one reason or another, Arden MUST DIE. Alice convinces Greene to hire some ruffians to do the evil deed. One of my favorite attributes of Elizabethan plays are the great names in them, for example the hired killers Black Will (Teresa Spencer) and Shakebag (Samantha Sheahan). Throughout the play they make several pitiful and ridiculously silly attempts to kill Arden. In fact, for being hit-men, it’s hard to imagine Black Will and Shakebag have ever successfully murdered anyone. With few female characters written into the play, it was refreshing to see women cast as the two killers Alice hires to dispatch her husband.
Spencer and Armstrong were the standouts for me in this piece, both giving animated and passionate performances. Both of of them would be shoo-ins for a spot in a BBC period piece. Sheahan plays a suitable sidekick to Spencer’s character, but her muddled accent made her lines difficult to understand at times.
The staging was a bit awkward in that the actors had their backs to the audience on many occasions. Often, they stand in the corners, inches from the front row audience members, but facing away from those on the opposite side of the stage. Also, the lights illuminate the entire black box space, which inhibits your ability to focus on the action. Other times, it’s almost completely dark and there is nothing to focus.
Director Dan Crane has updated the costumes to modern-day attire, and the set is minimal- a chair, side table, and kitchen table with a white cloth covering it. The centerpiece is an apropos vase of red roses that in the end are used to cover a stain from Arden’s blood.
Arden of Faversham is fabulously dramatic and entertaining. Although you won’t have to guess who done it, it’s fun to guess who wrote it, and why. It’s good to see Brave Spirits Theatre keeping these types of plays alive.