Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Custom of The Country at the American Shakespeare Center

During the Actors' Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, the acting company has the freedom to interpret the plays they perform without the guidance or hindrance of a director's vision. This can lead to revelatory performances allowing the audience to see a familiar Shakespeare play in a new light. When the play is one that has not been fully produced since the 17th century it can either breathe new life into that work or, if the staging choices are not cohesive and can lead to an uneven theatrical experience.

The later is the case with John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's The Custom of the Country. This is the most adult themed play in this Actors' Renaissance Season and the least produced work. The acting company has enthusiastically embraced the absurdities in this convoluted melodramatic story of torn-asunder lovers and their arduous journey back into each others arms. The problem is that there are two distinct styles on view on the Blackfriar's stage. While the production is enjoyable, parts of the story are rendered somewhat confusing and uneven.

Arnoldo and Zenocia are in love and intend to marry. Count Clodio, the Italian governor, desires Zenocia and wants to marry her. Despite the pleas of Zenocia's father, Charino, Arnoldo and Zenocia still plan to wed. Count Clodio has the right to sleep with any bride upon her wedding night. In order to thwart this custom, Arnoldo and Zenocia flee Italy.  Arriving in Portugal, Zenocia is captured by the sea captain, Leopold and given to his lady love, Hippolyta as a servant. Arnoldo and his brother Rutilio also wash ashore in Portugal.

Hippolyta's servant, Zabulon brings Arnoldo to Hippolyta who tries to seduce him.  Rutilio ends up in a duel with the proud Duarte, kills him, after Duarte's mother Guiomar takes pity on him Rutilio flees. Foolishly returning to woo Guiomar, Rutilio is captured. Sulpitia, who runs a male brothel and frees Rutilio to work for her.  Hippolyta, discovering that her servant Zenocia is Arnoldo's love plots Zenocia's demise. There are attempted murders, magic potions, changes of heart, recoveries and reunions before Arnoldo and Zenocia can have a chance at happily ever after.

There is a lot to keep straight in this play. The notes in the program will assist in giving the basic plot and who is whom. The actors have clearly delighted in coming up for some over-the-top stagings of some of the more absurd scenes. Highlights include the preparation for Zenocia's mournful wedding night and a ribald scene involving the overworked men of Sulpitia's brothel.

The problem lies in that our main characters, Grant Davis' Arnoldo and Tracie Thomason's Zenocia, seem to belong to a different play. This is the natural outcome of being the straight men surrounded by many outrageous supporting characters. As a result, those supporting characters are much more interesting than the plight of our hero and heroine. Perhaps if the actors heightened the melodrama in their own story the characters would feel a more cohesive part of this production. Mr. Davis and Ms. Thomason are noble and earnest performers, but they are upstaged by the rest of the company.

Rene Thornton, Jr. is appropriately menacing as the lascivious Count Clodio. Daniel Kennedy brings a mournful aspect to Zenocia's father, Charino. John Harrell tempers the Jewish Zabulon so that while he is a sleazy character, he doesn't register as the stereotypical money-hungry Jew common to plays of the period.  Sarah Fallon channels a bit of Mae West in her lusty Hippolyta and Abbi Hawk seems to revel in the power held by the bawd Sulpitia.

Allison Glenzer seems straight out of a Harlequin romance as the mother desiring revenge for her son's death who finds herself strangely attracted to her son's murderer. Chris Johnston brings pompous bravado to the hot head Duarte.  Mr. Johnston's duel with Benjamin Curns' Rutilio is heart stopping  Mr. Curns will bring tears of laughter amidst the melodrama as he complains of his treatment as a popular stud. Even though Rutilio's story is the secondary one, it is the most fun to watch.

It should be obvious that this is the most mature material being performed during this Actors' Renaissance Season. The title alludes to the ability of a noble lord to rape young women on their wedding night. The play contains a male brothel and many other references that are not appropriate for young children.  It should be fine for mature teenagers.

John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's The Custom of the Country is being performed as part of the Actors' Renaissance Season through April 6, 2013. During the Actors' Renaissance Season there are no directors or designers and the rehearsal process is a matter of days.  The Custom of the Country is being presented in repertory with William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Shakespeare and Fletcher's Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen and William Wycherley's The Country Wife. For tickets and other performance information please visit

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