What's a poor, spendthrift playboy to do?
Theodorus Witgood is broke thanks to profligate living with his mistress, a smart courtesan named Jane. And to make matters worse his tightwad rich uncle Pecunius Lucre has reposssesed everything Witgood owns, or in the words of the play, holds his mortgage. How do you dig yourself out of this hole? Concoct a scheme to convince your uncle that you are planning to marry a rich widow. Make sure that your uncle knows that if the widow finds out that you are poor then the wedding is off. Naturally your uncle, with his sights on keeping that widow's fortune in the family, is eager to assist you. Of course, your mistress is pretending to be the rich widow. Even better your uncle's bitter rival, Walkadine Hoard, has heard of your marriage plans and plots to marry the widow himself. If you can pull this craziness off, you trick your uncle out of cash, get your mortgage returned, get your creditors off your back, maybe even get named your rich uncle's heir and get to marry the girl of your dreams, who happens to be Hoard's niece. As a bonus, your put upon mistress will succeed in marrying Hoard and therefore, almost everyone will live happily ever after.
Thus is the craziness that is Thomas Middleton's A Trick To Catch The Old One. Written around 1605-1606, this is, as the notes in the program from Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen state, very much a precursor of the restoration comedy of manners. Many characters' names are reflective of their personalities. The comic situations are silly and the talented company of performers assembled for the Actor's Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center have fully embraced all of Middleton's zany situations. The evening that The Thespian attended was the pay what you will opening night. The Blackfriar's Playhouse was full of enthusiastic audience members who provided a vibrant energy for the actors to feed off. The Thespian also took the bold step of reserving a Gallant's Stool and sat on the stage for this performance. Sitting upon the stage provides a very interesting perspective as an audience member. You are inches away from the actors and you may invite being enveloped in the action. It was within this welcoming atmosphere that the actors put on a rollicking fun evening of theater.
Middleton seems to have inspired each member of the company to embrace the archetypes that they play and heighten the comedic potential of their characters. For this production most of the actors have chosen modern dress and bold color choices. The exception to this are the two arch rivals, Lucre and Hoard who are dressed as if they were Dickensian dandies and every time they meet on stage seem poised to start a duel. These costuming choices make it easy for the audience to quickly identify what each character represents.
As our hero, Witgood, Gregory Jon Phelps is a delightful leading man. As the wise courtesan, Jane, Miriam Donald is bright, witty and enthusiastic. Together they are an easy pair to root for in their scheming. As the uncle Lucre and his rival Hoard, John Harrell and Benjamin Curns drip with indignation for each other and exude lust for the potential money to be made from the supposed rich widow. As Witgood's creditors Jeremiah Davis, Paul Jannise and Jeremy West seem like they stepped straight out of a Damon Runyon tale.
In a secondary plot, the morality tale of the usurer Harry Dampit is unwound. Tyler Moss plays the successful money lender with enthusiasm, eagerly giving his business cards to the audience around the stage. A man who lives high on the hog, Dampit is shown wallowing in excess. Mr. Moss is very funny, first as the richly dressed and bejeweled usurer at the top of his game, then mired in drunkenness and then in a poignant scene, bedridden, yet defiant surrounded by his acquaintances and business partners as he dies. His sweet, put upon servant, Audrey, well played by Alison Glenzer faithfully takes his blows and cares for her master until his death. It is as if Middleton wanted to punish someone for the loose living of his main character. And while the scenes are well acted, the subplot is a bit jarring compared to the rest of the play.
Yet, for the rest of the characters, they do live happily ever after and our hero and heroine vow upon their knees to live a chaste and moral life in the future. The audience will leave the Blackfriar's Playhouse with a smile in their hearts and a chuckle upon their lips.
The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia presents Thomas Middleton's A Trick To Catch The Old One in repertory with William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and Henry VI, Part 3, John Marston's The Malcontent and Look About You, author unknown through April 1, 2011. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com.