The Maid's Tragedy
A Maid's Unmaking of a Man,
A Moment Made for Live Theater
By Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher
American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
Friday, March 14, 2014, C–6&7 (front middle stalls)
Actors' Renaissance Season
Jaws drop. That's not hyperbole. I mean, really, people sit agape, their mouths involuntarily open to two or more inches. Some jam knuckles between their teeth—their own knuckles or their husband's. Guys wince, a few turn away. Yet, almost everybody else laughs, though it's a laughter that quickly transitions to the communal sound of disbelief, something like a modulating shriekish moan. And when all is done, one woman in the audience says, "Yay, Sarah!"
Evadne (Sarah Fallon) prepares to make the final thrust of her knife as she murders her lover, the King (Jonathan Holtzman) in his bed in the American Shakespeare Center's production of The Maid's Tragedy at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Below, Evadne's husband, Amintor (Gregory Jon Phelps) mourns the death of his true love, Aspatia (Abbi Hawk). Photos by Lindsey Walters, American Shakespeare Center.
Spoiler alert applies to the rest of this essay. If you already plan to see The Maid's Tragedy at the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse, set this review aside until afterward. If you haven't planned to see it, plan now, for its run ends April 5. And if you wouldn't plan to see it because it's not by William Shakespeare, put aside your snobbery or at least consider that this play by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher likely was first produced by Shakespeare's company, the King's Men, and therefore he might have acted in it himself.
Say what you will about this production—and there is a lot to be said, from the psychologically rich script circa 1608 to the superlative performances of actors putting on the play by themselves sans director or production team and from cue scripts with only a few days of rehearsal (the M.O. of the ASC's Actors' Renaissance Season)—the single image that will sear forever into your memory is Sarah Fallon as Evadne dis-membering the King, played by Jonathan Holtzman, while he lies tied to bedposts.
I start with this lasting image for both the obvious reason that it is still at the forefront of my brain days later but also for thematic purposes: This scene represents everything that is cool about live, modern classical theater. To call bloody castration a cathartic moment may sound a bit pap, but remember that it inspired a woman to let loose a little too loudly her frank approval of the actress. Granted, the name Sarah makes for easier recollection than that of Evadne, a character we've only just met an hour or so before, whereas Sarah we've known for years.
And that is part of the 4D tapestry of the moment. Beaumont and Fletcher have written a psychologically taut thriller that brings Evadne to this moment in such a fashion that the scene could turn down a dozen obvious paths. We are in the moment, already on edge over whether the King will wake and overpower her or shout for help, over whether any of a variety of other characters might appear, and over whether Evadne will actually go through with murdering him. Additionally, as it is with all live theater but especially relevant in repertory theater, when Evadne enters for this scene, the actress playing the character—in this case, Fallon—enters, too. Despite the short rehearsal time (this performance was on opening night), Fallon has already found every cell of psychological nuance in her character; through her experience with Renaissance theater she has an expert's eye for the implied staging of certain lines; and over the years of working in a repertory theater company, she has developed a trusting relationship with her fellow actors, including Holtzman, whom she now ties to the bedposts. The scene suddenly weaves humor into the suspense when the King awakes and, noting the red silk ties around his wrists, asks, "What pretty new device is this, Evadne?" Holtzman speaks this line in a perverted lustful tone, so now we are juggling laughter with quick-breathed tension as we watch Fallon, dressed in a black slip, mount the bed and straddle the bare-chested Holtzman, looking down at his face—so, add erotic titillation to our emotional palette. Then, despite all her talk leading up to it, her first thrust with her knife into his breast shocks us. A little more talk and another thrust. A little more talk as she turns around to face his south, and on the line "this stroke for the most wrong'd of women," she makes her final thrust, and we get the kabob moment.
Live theater. It's not always about turning fantasy into reality; sometimes it's about making reality seeming reality. No 3D glasses, no virtual reality headsets, no green screens, no computer animation: this is all believably happening in real time with real people only a few feet from the disbelieving theater patrons sitting on the gallant stools on stage and right below the squirming people sitting in the lords' seats above. Those of us in the stalls can't be sure Holtzman hasn't actually been sliced and diced, though we do see him in the bar after the show, so he at least survived. Yet, that also points to another dimension to the psychological tapestry we have just lived in; these people performing these acts we've seen in many productions, including four others in this Renaissance Season alone, and we see them on the streets and in the shops of Staunton, not on the rag sheets in the checkout lines but actually standing in the checkout lines. Hence the "Yay, Sarah" salute as Evadne, covered in blood (to say nothing of Holtzman) exits.
Yet, we are only two-thirds through the play. Though nothing quite so squirm-worthy comes after, we still have more plot twists to get through leading to three more agonizing deaths and a whole lotta lovely acting still in store.
On that note, well, yay Sarah. In terms of showcasing her versatile acting skills, this might be Fallon's greatest performance on the Blackfriars stage where she has given us indelible Margarets, Kates, and a Dido. Evadne's character arc is Cleopatra-like in scope, a journey through multiple emotions and personality traits all linked by a powerful thread of self-purpose, and Fallon navigates it all with absolute sureness. We first see her as a sweet bride to Amintor (Gregory Jon Phelps), exemplifying female docility and prudishness; but when she steadfastly refuses to go to bed with the groom on their wedding night, we see a stubborn force that espouses might and right. Then she reveals the foundation of that might and right: she already is the King's mistress. "I would not have a fool, it were no credit to me," she says by way of logical explanation as to why she won't sleep with anybody other than the King. She shows even greater fierceness toward the King himself, warning him that "I swore indeed that I would never love a man of lower place; but if your fortune should throw you from this height, I bade you trust I would forsake you, and would bend to him that won your throne; I love with my ambition, not with mine eyes." Yeah, this was written around 1608.
However, Evadne cannot hold up to the morality-based, verbal beating of her brother, Melantius (René Thornton Jr.), and Fallon calls on every tool in her acting repertoire to play out the roller coaster emotions of this single scene, moving through deceit to pride to anger to disgust with Melantius to disgust with herself and finally to moral anguish. The scene could easily play like a Telemunda novella, but Fallon renders authenticity in every action and reaction. She then must face Amintor again, who believes she is still dissembling. "My whole life is so leprous," she says to him, one of two references she makes to the disease (her first use is in a more defiant tone, and Melantius also calls her "a Leprous one"). It's an apt allegory in that the disease's debilitation is more in the perception than in the condition itself. In the end she is overcome by all loss of self-worth. As psychotic as the method of her murdering the King is, Evadne has a final psychologically wrenching scene revealing a woman suffering traumatic stress over everything she's done, the worst of it being denying the love of her husband. Fallon's performance here is a foretaste of what we might expect to see in her Lady Macbeth this summer, and I can't wait.
Having said all that, this production is remarkable for its level of ensemble acting. It is a series of one-on-one scenes in which characters have a deeper reality gurgling beneath their public statements, and the actors play these levels subtly. Though set in ancient Rhodes, the actors costume themselves in modern dress. Fallon outfits Evadne in stylish cocktail dresses and frilly lingerie. Phelps in white tuxedo jacket brings innocence without naïveté to his Amintor. Originally betrothed to Aspatia (Abbi Hawk), Amintor is induced by royal decree to marry the sister of his best friend and Rhodes's hero warrior, Melantius. Amintor later finds out the purpose for this match is to cover up the King's affair with Avadne, a stab of tyrannical injustice at Amintor and Melantius.
The scene between Holtzman's King, wearing a gold cloak as a cape, and Phelps' Amintor in which the King digs and digs to learn how much Amintor has learned plays with such crisp tension the air crackles on each line. Melantius next accosts Amintor about his melancholia, and we can fully understand Amintor's dilemma here given Thornton's portrayal of Melantius in flak vest and camouflage pants and championing his soldier's black-and-white ethics. Foremost among Melantius's principles is duty to a friend, which he places above family, even. These scenes are set pieces, perhaps a bit formulaic, but they all involve agonizingly drawn-out choices: Will Amintor confess to Melantius? Will Melantius accept the explanation? Will Evadne acquiesce to Melantius's moral judgment and consequence? Will Amintor accept Evadne again once she has? The King's murder may have a visceral impact, but a more heart-rendering gotcha comes when Aspatia disguises herself as her brother to fight Amintor, hoping her ex-fiance will actually kill her. Amintor doesn't see through the disguise, but he does realize that his foe is purposely leaving himself open in the ensuing dagger fight, but it is his own suspended moment of doubt about his foe's true motives that ends up proving fatal to Aspatia.
Moving in from the sidelines is Calianax, the bitter father of the heartbroken Aspatia but nevertheless given command of the fortress. He already despises Melantius before his daughter's jilting, and John Harrell, looking like Tom Hanks's conductor on the Polar Express, bandies with Thornton's warrior hero in most rude terms but cowardly actions. It's a comic role, especially in the scene when Melantius openly recruits Calianax to his cause while making the old man appear senile to the King. Yet, Calianax's moral compass is perhaps the play's most true. "Strange that I should be old and neither wise nor valiant," he says. His story turns out to be another of the play's tragic threads.
For a play with the word "tragedy" in the title (and which maid's tragedy?), it contains a lot of comedy. Credit to the actors who, after years of experience with Shakespeare and his contemporaries, have an innate understanding of Jacobean humor. With such a good start, courtesy of Beaumont and Fletcher, the ensemble handles the dialogue with confidence, the emotions with authenticity, and the characters with empathy. Through the troupe's all-in performance, it is us who leave our hearts on the Blackfriars Playhouse stage floor—after we've retrieved our jaws.
March 18, 2014