Friday, March 2, 2012

A Mad World, My Masters at the American Shakespeare Center

Rowdy, bawdy comedy has arrived on the Blackfriars' Playhouse stage in Staunton, Virginia.   The fourth offering of this winter season's Actors' Renaissance Season is Thomas Middleton's A Mad World, My Masters.   The humor is both witty and sophomoric.   The characters are as broadly drawn as their names would suggest.   The acting company is taking full advantage of this unsubtle comedy to thoroughly have fun with their costume choices and characterizations.    For an evening of laughs make sure that you travel to the Shenandoah Valley and catch this rare production.

Dick Follywit is heir to his grandfather, Sir Bounteous Progress.  Impatient, he plots to trick his grandsire out of his fortune.   With the aid of his comrades, Lt. Mawworm, Ensign Hoboy and a Footman they plot and scheme with silly disguises to rob him of his treasures.   Meanwhile, Master Shortrod Harebrain is desperate to prevent his wife from turning him into a cuckold.   Unfortunately, Master Penitent Brothel  schemes to become Mistress Harebrain's lover.    In the middle of this madness is the courtesan, Frank Gullman who has sold her virginity numerous times to raise the funds for her dowry.   She is hired by Master Harebrain as a moral companion to his wife.   Frank is double-crossing Harebrain by aiding Brothel in gaining access to Harebrain"s eager young wife.    To complicate things further Frank has once again sold her virginity and become Sir Bounteous' mistress.   What will happen when Frank meets Dick Follywit?   How will these entanglements be resolved?

Oh, what a tale is being woven at the Blackfriars'.   This play by Shakespeare's contemporary, Thomas Middleton is considered a city comedy.   It takes place in London and the laughs are broadly physical and liberally dosed with bodily humor.    Yet, the puns fly fast in Middleton's dialogue, crisply delivered by the eloquent band of intrepid actors.

The performers are clearly having a lot of fun with these characters.  In several minor roles Aidan O'Reilly and Jeremy West find ways to be memorable with little stage time.  Alison Glenzer plays Frank's mother by way of the Jersey Shore.  Brandi Rhome puts an angelic face on the silly adulterous wife and slinks as her succubus double.

The trio of comrades aiding and abetting Follywit's schemes are comic dynamos in the hands of Chris Johnston, Benjamin Curns and Sarah Fallon.   Gregory Jon Phelps delights in bringing Follywit's schemes to vibrant life.   An addition of a perfect costume accessory and he is off to the races.  Rene Thornton, Jr. is the hapless cuckold, Shortrod Harebrain.  He makes us laugh at the character's foibles.   John Harrell plays Penitent Brothel as meek and a bit bumbling, yet living up to his name deftly manages both sides of his character's name.

Miriam Donald assays with aplomb the many facets of Frank Gullman.   She plays the coy maiden and the brash courtesan and throws herself into two of the most outrageous scenes involving the most "adult" humor.   She is clearly a highlight of the production and is well matched by the astounding Daniel Kennedy who portrays Sir Bounteous Progress by way of South Florida.   Mr. Kennedy has made physical choices that enhance the comedy.   Between the two of them backed up by their rousing ensemble members this is a comedy to remember.

A Mad World, My Masters by Thomas Middleton will be presented as part of the Actors' Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia in repertoire with William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and Richard III, Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, and Christopher Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage through April 7, 2012. For tickets and other performance information, please visit

During the Actors' Renaissance Season there are no directors or designers. The American Shakespeare Center recreates what extensive research believes were the conditions that Shakespeare's acting company would have used to stage a play. The actors receive only cue scripts containing their lines and a short "cue", the last few words of the preceding actor's line. They are responsible for acquiring their own costumes and props from the stock available at the theater. There is a prompter on the side of the stage in case someone forgets a line. The rehearsal period is a matter of days.

Parental advisory:  This play contains a lot of bawdy humor both in the witty script and actually depicted on stage.   The play should be fine for mature middle schoolers and definitely will be popular with high school students.   Parents of younger children may want to review the fine notes on the play in the program or the American Shakespeare Center's website to decide whether this play is appropriate for the younger set.

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