Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Arden of Faversham

Theatre Review by James Wilson - March 16, 2023

Cara Ricketts, Tony Roach,
and Thomas Jay Ryan (seated)

Photo by Carol Rosegg
In adapting Arden of Faversham, the anonymously written domestic tragedy from 1592, Jeffrey Hatcher and Kathryn Walat explain in a program note that they intended to merge the tragic and farcical elements of the Elizabethan original to create a version that might be akin to a Coen Brothers film. To that end, the production presented by Red Bull Theater and currently running at the Lucille Lortel Theatre merges film noir, slapstick comedy, presentational acting conventions, and blank verse. The components do not always cohere, but there is a fair amount of grisly pleasure in this marriage of Macbeth and No Country for Old Men.

Subtitled "A True Crime Thriller," Arden is based on a real-life Valentine's Day murder in 1551. Although embellished, most of the historical figures and events surrounding the killing are represented in the play. Arden (Thomas Jay Ryan) is a wealthy and prominent landowner in Faversham. His wife Alice (Cara Ricketts), resembling a cunning and barbarous Lady Macbeth, is in a passionate love affair with Mosby (Tony Roach), a steward and former tailor. The two plot the murder of the gullible Arden, who is joined at the hip by his devoted friend Franklin (Thom Sesma). Also involved in the scheme is Mosby's sister Susan (Emma Geer), who is courted by the awkward and lovable servant Michael (Zachary Fine) and the pompous and poison-bearing artist Clarke (Joshua David Robinson).

Through a combination of dumb luck, coincidence, and assailant ineptitude, Arden is able to evade several assassination attempts. In fact, for much of the play, he is blithely unaware he is being followed by a couple of bumbling hitmen, Big Will (David Ryan Smith) and Shakebag (Haynes Thigpen), who are hired by the conniving and revengeful Widow Greene (Veronica Falcón). (Some scholars suggest that Shakespeare was a co-writer, and the characters, although based on real people, Big Will–or, Black Will in the original–and Shakebag offer a tantalizing literary connection.)

Directed by Jesse Berger, the production begins with a nod to film noir of the mid-twentieth century. The first scene is set in the parlor of a Tudor home (Christopher Swader and Justin Swader designed the cleverly adaptable set), and a man's 1950s fedora sits prominently on the heavy wooden table center. Alice, wearing an alluring white silk robe (Mika Eubanks designed the astute costumes) enters stealthily, and in Reza Behjat's moody and shadowy lighting, she slinks about the stage like Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice or Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. (Greg Pliska, who also composed the original music, and Nina Field are behind the evocative sound design.)

As the play goes on, however, the intrigue is undercut by dashes of broad (and not particularly well-executed) slapstick comedy. The brilliance of a Coen Brothers film lies in the ways in which butchery, absurdity, and suspense are organic to the world they have created. Intermixing period and contemporary costumes, melodramatic and classical acting approaches, and tragedy and buffoonery, however, the world of Arden seems to be constantly shifting and it's unclear which world the characters exist in.

The actors are clearly having a lot of fun, but the most effective scenes are those in which they do not play for the laughs or the gasps. Ryan, as usual, is terrific, and he is delightfully dim without being clownish. Ricketts is compelling in the femme fatale part, and in her escalating desperation to see her husband dead, she offers glimmers of humanity as she recalls the times when she was in truly love with him. Sesma gives a stalwart and moving performance as Arden's sidekick with his own obscured desires.

Arden of Faversham is rarely done in the United States, and its mysterious authorial origins (which have also included Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe) tend to eclipse its stageworthiness. Even a schizophrenic production like the current one, though, shows that this domestic tragedy potentially offers a bloody good time.

Arden of Faversham
Through April 1, 2023
Red Bull Theater
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: