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The Shoemaker's Holiday (or The Gentle Craft)

All Decked Out and Dekker, Too

Written by Thomas Dekker
Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, St. Mary's Community Center, Baltimore, Maryland

Sunday, November 6, 2016, second pew, left side of old church
Directed by Thomas Delise

Firk in tan knit cap, white blousey shirt, brown vest with multicolored fringe ribbons holds out his left hand with finger touching thumb
Ian Blackwell Rogers as Firk in Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's production of Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday. Photo by Will Kirk, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

Simon Eyre started sounding vaguely familiar. He is a shoemaker who becomes the Lord Mayor of London in Thomas Dekker's play The Shoemaker's Holiday. The character is based on a historical figure (not a shoemaker but a clothes distributor) of the early 15th century, and Dekker presents him as a convivial simpleton with an outsized view of his importance and mental capacity who has a penchant for mythological allusions and insulting everybody (genially, of course, in Conrad Deitrick's portrayal of him in the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's production).

Midway through the play's second half, as Eyre describes in vivid imaginary detail how he will be received by the king in a forthcoming meeting, I realized where I'd seen his kind before: in William Shakespeare's Henry IV. Certainly, Eyre is no Sir John Falstaff; nor did Dekker have the intellectual capacity to write the equivalent of Shakespeare's famous fat knight. However, with Shakespeare's fat knight already a huge hit in London, it's only natural that Dekker would try to ride Shakespeare's creative coattails by presenting his own fat influence peddler, even tapping into a legendary gregarious local figure—as Shakespeare did with Falstaff (nee, Sir John Oldcastle)—and make him the star of his new comedy about London city life, The Shoemaker's Holiday, first staged in 1599. Hollywood does this kind of thing all the time, and London's theater scene in Shakespeare's time was the Elizabethan/Jacobean equivalent to American cinema.

This specific moment is part of the larger picture of why the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory (BSF) is venturing into staging works by Shakespeare's contemporaries: it goes beyond revealing the influences on the Bard to unveiling the greater context of Shakespeare's profession at the time he practiced it. "At BSF, we want to give these wonderful authors their due, and at the same time, I believe there is much we can learn about Shakespeare from taking a close look at the work of these playwrights, as well," Artistic Director Tom Delise, who directed The Shoemaker's Holiday, writes in his program notes.

The Shoemaker's Holiday might seem a strange choice for BSF's inaugural entry in this effort in that it is not by Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson, nor is it a title that you've heard of somewhere by a writer who sounds vaguely familiar. Dekker, as much pamphleteer as playwright, was a flickering bulb in the chandelier of London's theater scene, and The Shoemaker's Holiday is to Shakespeare 's Henry IV what Two Days in the Valley is to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. Certainly you can better appreciate Tarantino not only by watching his influencers (e.g., Roger Corman) but also the films he, in turn, influenced. Nevertheless, in that parallel, the Oscar-winning Crash, two cineaste generations removed from Pulp Fiction, would be considered the more enriching pick than Two Days in the Valley, even if the latter is more fun to watch.

"More fun to watch" is exactly Delise's purpose in choosing Dekker's play. Even in BSF's mission statement—to maintain strict fealty to Shakespeare's verse structure and original staging conditions—Delise's purpose is to make Shakespeare's plays more fun to watch. This might seem counterintuitive or downright crazy to modern directors hung up on conceptualizing Shakespeare's works in search of an illusive relevance that's already there in the plays, but it works, here and in countless productions I've attended at other theaters: the text-centric, universal lighting, audience-interactive approach to staging Shakespeare actually enlivens the plays and makes them more accessible to modern audiences. Thus, after reading many plays by other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, Delise was most engrossed by Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday. "I became immediately captivated by this delightful play and its cast of charming characters," he writes. "I realized that this was the perfect play for our company to begin our look into the works of Shakespeare's contemporaries."

"The perfect play" is, clearly, a judgment call, but one thing you can say about Dekker's piece is that it's crazy fun, and even its imperfections are a wonder to watch. In that way, it is like Tarantino: meandering plot forcedly intertwined with meandering subplot, long wordy passages showing off the scriptwriter's wink-wink meditations on pop culture, and a multitude of bizarre characters engaging in colorful vulgarity. The bawdy banter in The Shoemaker's Holiday, in fact, was deemed unfit for Restoration audiences, perhaps the most randy generation in English history. The words themselves are pretty tame by our standards, but Eyre's lewd commentary about and directed toward his wife, Margery (Bethany Mayo), is pretty jaw dropping by 21st century standards of decorum; yet, Mayo's Margery takes it as Eyre intends it, as lusty love. The play has more uncomfortable moments in the gentleman Hammon stalking the young, married Jane and forcing himself on her via threat of violence to himself and then, inevitably, toward her.

But that's a sideplot to what I think is a subplot. Let's do a plots summary before we go any further. Sir Hugh, the Earl of Lincoln (Ben Fisler) has a nephew and heir, Lacy (Chris Cotterman), who, much to the uncle's dismay, strives to be a working stiff—he even learned how to be a shoemaker. Lacy is in love with Rose (Allie Press), the daughter of Roger Oatley (Craig Allen), the mayor of London. Both Lincoln and Oatley are against the marriage—Lincoln because Rose is of a lower class, Oatley because of some financial disincentive I didn't understand. So, Lincoln gets Lacy a commission in the army to lead a unit to fight in France. One of the men his regiment drafts is Ralph (Davon Harris), a worker in Eyre's shoemaker shop, who has just married Jane (Tegan Williams). She's too distraught for comfort, even as Ralph gives her a pair of shoes he's made just for her before he marches off with Lacy's company. Except Lacy himself doesn't go to France; he secretly turns his command over to a friend and returns to London disguised as a Dutch shoemaker and goes to work in Eyre's shop, allowing him the opportunity to encounter and elope with Rose. Oatley intends for Rose to marry Hammon (Thomas Bowers), but Hammon has the hots for Jane, whom he's eyed working at a clothes shop. Hammon badgers her until he reveals to her that Ralph was killed in the wars, and only then does she agree to marry him. But Ralph is not dead: severely wounded, he returns to London, but can't find Jane. Eyre, gaining stature in the community, visits with Oatley and brings his workers along to perform a Morris dance. Rose recognizes Lacy among them; they connect and plan to elope. Meanwhile, Hammon's servant brings a shoe to Eyre's shop to replicate for a wedding, and Ralph recognizes it as the one he gave Jane. Ralph and his cohorts interrupt the wedding and, not only does Jane choose Ralph, Ralph refuses Hammon's offer of money for her. After Eyre becomes Lord Mayor, he plans a shoemaker's holiday feast at the guild hall, which will be attended by the king (Jim Knost). Eyre has grandiose notions of what this feast will mean to the London craftsmen and what his meeting with the king will yield—and he's right. The workers honor Eyre, and the king is quite taken with the new mayor's brash ways. Then come both Lincoln and Oatley asking the king to divorce Lacy and Rose; instead, the king knights Lacy so that Rose gains the stature of a lady.

All that, and I haven't even mentioned the play's lynchpin character: Firk, a journeyman shoemaker in Eyre's shop, played by Ian Blackwell Rogers. In the tradition of Shakespeare's witty clowns (Speed in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for instance, and Moth in Love's Labour's Lost) with keenly comic observations of gentry society, Firk also is a proud journeyman workman who extols both street smarts and craftsman shrewdness as he punks the hoity-toity. He helps get Lacy and Rose married and forestalls Jane's wedding to Hammon so that Ralph can intervene; and he does all of this with winking asides to his fellow shoemakers and to the audience who, in Rogers' portrayal, are also his cohorts. Though much of Firk's humor is obtuse, the character blossoms in the performance of Rogers as he channels Firk's deft tongue-tripping skills into a charming comic portrayal. When Oatley asks "What knave is this?" Firk replies with an introduction, a defense of his character, his reason for being, and a parting blessing all in one: "No knave, sir. I am Firk the shoemaker, lusty Roger's chief lusty journeyman, and I have come hither to take up the pretty leg of sweet Mistress Rose, and thus hoping your worship is in as good health, as I was at the making hereof, I bid you farewell; yours, Firk."

Having a guy disguised as a Dutchman allows Dekker to poke fun at people speaking Dutch (a la Shakespeare's stab at the Welsh in the Hal plays), and Firk leads the way in a manner that combines an ethnic slur with an ethnic stereotype: "Hire him, good master, that I may learn some gibble-gabble—'twill make us work the faster." Cotterman doing Lacy doing Hans speaking Pig Dutch is an ongoing joke, but it leads to a precious moment in Delise's staging when Eyre's four workers—the foreman Hodge (Emily Su) plus journeymen Firk, Ralph, and "Hans"—sit at four corners of the stage, Firk singing a song that the others pick up on. Each chorus ends with Cotterman's Hans, his hammer of a Dutch tongue bringing a smile to the others' faces. If they are not working "the faster," they at least are working with pleasant camaraderie while showing great attention to the detail of their work and workplaces.

In addition to Rogers as Firk and Cotterman as Lacy/Hans, Mayo as Margery, Eyre's wife, turns in a standout performance. It would be easy to play Margery as a blithering idiot (Eyre insinuates that she is), an Edith to Archie Bunker. However, with Deitrick playing up Eyre's garrulous geniality, Mayo matches her Margery to the Mayor's bonhomie personality, enjoying her brush with fame and honor and appreciating the conviviality of her husband's shop.

Cast in various costumes lined up at back of wood checkered stage and balcony backdrom
The cast of Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday line up for the prologue in the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's production. From left, Jane (Tegan Williams), Ralph (Davon Harris), Rose (Allie Press), Eyre (Conrad Deitrick), Margery (Bethany Mayo), Firk (Ian Blackwell Rogers), Sybil (Kerry Brady), Hammon (Thomas Bowers), Oatley (Craig Allen), the King (Jim Knost), Lacy (Chris Cotterman), and Lincoln (Ben Fisler). Photo by Will Kirk, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

Another star of this show is Costume Designer April Forrer. She puts together an Elizabethan London wardrobe with as colorful a tapestry as the characters who populate the city, from Ralph's simple brown vest and drawstring striped pants to Rose's simply ravishing patterned dress and Lincoln's tapestry-rich jacket and cloak. All the colors and fabrics, too, combine contentiously in Firk's get-up, a brown vest with tassled trim, multicolored striped puffy knee britches, and black stockings.

Dekker sometimes seems to be making fun of the lower classes, especially in his presentation of Eyre. However, in Firk, Dekker shows a backhanded respect for those whose education in the urban streets and workshops serves them just as well in life—if not better—than all the book learning a college can offer. The Shoemaker's Holiday is in a genre of plays known as city comedies portraying contemporary London life, of which Jonson and Thomas Middleton were the chief practitioners (by portraying Eyre, Dekker ostensibly sets his play in 1445, hence the presence of a king, but his London is clearly that of 1599). It is often said that Shakespeare never wrote an urban comedy—though he did write a suburban comedy with The Merry Wives of Windsor—but I contend he did, at least in part: Henry IV, Part One and Part Two. The titular character and chief protagonist in those plays are royal, and the rebels are nobles, but the Eastcheap scenes comprise tavern servers, hostesses, prostitutes, pickpockets, and scoundrel gentlemen, along with Sir John Falstaff, their self-crowned king. These scenes predate by just a couple of years the rise in popularity of the city comedy genre, and with Falstaff's popularity inspiring two sequels by Shakespeare, I have to wonder if Shakespeare's Henry IV plays might have helped spur that genre.

And there you have it: a greater appreciation of Shakespeare through Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday—not to mention a greater appreciation for the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory. The company founded by Delise in 2006 can still be described as fledgling in a market where the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival recently shuttered (the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory moved into the festival's previous space, a church turned into a community center in North Baltimore) and the well-established and -funded Chesapeake Shakespeare Company moved into a beautiful new theater near the city's popular Inner Harbor two years ago. Delise is trying to create a niche for his company, first by establishing a text-centric standard of performance, then actually staging Original Pronunciation performances (The Merchant of Venice in 2015, The Winter's Tale this year, and Antony and Cleopatra coming up next year). Now, Delise is expanding into the works of Shakespeare's contemporaries, but he is not taking a safe route: instead of Jonson he goes with Dekker, and on the schedule for 2017 Delise has tapped The Sea Voyage by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger, another doozy. Yet it's a purposeful route, and rewarding, too, if you love Shakespeare, if you love theater.

Eric Minton
November 20, 2016

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