The Shoemaker’s Holiday: A Firking Funny Production at BSF
This weekend, I had the good fortune to be at Baltimore Shakespeare Factory (“BSF”), as part of the first audience ever to see The Shoemaker’s Holiday in Baltimore. I attend regional premieres all the time, so what’s so special about this one? It wasn’t a new play by a new playwright. BSF’s current production was first produced 417 years ago and hasn’t been performed very much since.
The Shoemaker’s Holiday, or The Gentle Craft, was written by Thomas Dekker, a contemporary of William Shakespeare. The play was first performed by The Lord Admiral’s Men, The Bard’s rival theater company, in 1599. It later played for Queen Elizabeth I, but was then banned during The Restoration… for being too dirty. Nowadays, I doubt it would get a PG-13 rating, but in Elizabethan England, the lewd jokes, double entendres, and sexy wordplay got it put on the shelf for years. But now it’s back, it’s in Baltimore, and it’s bawdy, naughty fun.
The Shoemaker’s Holiday is loosely based on the story of a real-life craftsman named Simon Eyre. In class-obsessed 16th Century England, he is a commoner who manages to rise to the position of Lord Mayor of London. Alongside this proud shoemaker’s movin’-on-up tale, are two love stories – Roland/Rose and Ralph/Jane. Roland Lacy, the chronically overspending nephew of the Earl of Lincoln, is of aristocratic birth. Rose is the daughter of Roger Oatley, who is the Lord Mayor of London prior to Eyre’s fortuitous ascension. It sounds pretty fancy, but as we learn with Eyre, you don’t have to be noble-born to become Mayor. It’s a job that a commoner can achieve with effort and good fortune. Predictably, the lovers’ families totally oppose their union. On Roland’s side, it’s because of the class mismatch; on Rose’s side, it’s because Roland’s snooty uncle has convinced Rose’s dad that Roland is a squandering spendthrift unsuited for marriage.
Ralph is one of Eyre’s journeymen; he makes shoes for a living. He’s recently married Jane, his very emotional wife. When Ralph gets notice he’s been drafted and is being sent off to war in France, Jane is bereft. The couple, assisted by Eyre, beg Roland, who is a minor muckety-muck in the military, to give Ralph a pass. Roland is unable to keep the young couple together and Ralph ships out to France. Roland, himself under orders to go to France, decides instead to desert the military and find Rose.
Dekker’s play employs many of the same devices as fellow playwright of the time, William Shakespeare. There’s impersonation, conspiracy, misdirection, social climbing, and seemingly-doomed romance. Convoluted hijinks abound and the King even shows up with some sage words. Pleasantly unlike Shakespeare, though, everyone lives!
Attending a production at BSF is always a refreshing change of pace. As they explain, “It is the objective of Baltimore Shakespeare Factory to recreate, as closely as is possible, the staging conditions, spirit, and atmosphere created by Shakespeare’s theatre company during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.” This means, among other things, that the house lights stay up; there’s a minimal (if any) set; the actors’ genders don’t have to correlate to their characters’; and the costumes are gorgeous (thanks to outstanding Costume Designer and BSF Managing Director, April Forrer).
There’s also pre-show, in-show, and intermission music – all performed by the energetic, multi-talented cast. Music Director Jamie Horrell has picked the perfect music to complement The Shoemaker’s Holiday. My favorites were Emily Su’s lovely rendition of Lorde’s “Royals” and the full-cast mashup of “These Boots Are Made for Walking” by Nancy Sinatra, “Blue Suede Shoes” by Elvis Presley, and “Boogie Shoes” by the disco-riffic KC and The Sunshine Band. If you want more info on the performance experience BSF creates, you can read about it here.
The large ensemble that Tom Delise – both Director of the play and Artistic Director of BSF – gathered for this show is excellent. Each actor performed well, bringing tremendous energy and exuberance to the rowdy, raucous show.
Of particular note is Conrad Deitrick as Simon Eyre. Deitrick presents Eyre’s garrulous grandiosity in a way that fills the entire stage. He doesn’t come off as an irritating blowhard, though. Deitrick captures his character’s genuinely good heart and his undeniable zest for life, whether it be as a crafter of lovely shoes or as Lord Mayor of one of the most important cities in the world. Deitrick’s performance makes Eyre a particularly endearing character; the kind of person who may talk way too loudly at parties, but whose good fortune you truly enjoy celebrating.
Chris Cotterman, an accomplished Member of the BSF Company, plays Roland Lacy. Cotterman ably shows Lacy’s determined single-mindedness in his quest to reunite with his love, Rose. However, it’s in his turns as Lacy’s alter-ego, Hans the Dutch shoemaker, that Cotterman really shines. His portrayal of Hans is as goofy and funny as the absurd situation Dekker devised for him. Loose-limbed, Cotterman’s physical movements and easy manner match Hans’ amusing Dutchglish form of communication beautifully.
As Simon Eyre’s wife, Margery, Bethany Mayo does an excellent job showing how her character evolves throughout the play. Starting as a sassy craftsman’s wife, Margery grows incrementally more mannerly as her husband climbs rung after rung of the social ladder. In each of her scenes, Mayo adeptly demonstrates her character’s increasingly genteel manner. Also becoming more refined as the play unfolds are Margery’s lovely garments, courtesy of skilled Costume Designer April Forrer.
The female halves of the couples torn asunder, Allie Press as Rose and BSF Company Member Tegan Williams as Jane, adeptly serve in numerous parts in The Shoemaker’s Holiday. They each perform their multiple roles well, but are at their best as the lovelorn ladies. Williams, in particular, impressed me as she transformed from being over-the-top forlorn at the thought of her husband’s departure to being resigned and detached as the long wait for his return makes her fear the worst.
In a production full of sterling performances, BSF Company Member Ian Blackwell Rogers wins the day as shoemaking journeyman, Firk – a character who never misses an opportunity to crack a lewd joke or down a pint of ale. Rogers’ embodiment of his character goes from the top of his head to tips of his toes. He is exceptionally animated, confidently crass, and makes patently juvenile sight gags actually funny. Rogers nails it.
I’m not much of a potty humor kind of gal. I wouldn’t expect a show replete with prickly puns, fart jokes and references to names like Cicely Bumtrinket to tickle me as much as it did. Part of it is probably the Old English, but mostly I think it’s BSF’s commitment. You’ve got to go all-in to sell this level of bawdy humor. BSF pulls off all the bits that got the play banned in Britain back in the day. Well done.
The Shoemaker’s Holiday has all the ingredients for a first-rate night of lighthearted theater merriment: a festive story, great acting, spirited singing, perfectly-timed sight gags, and straight-up silly comedy. While opening weekend was part of the Charm City Fringe Festival – which you should absolutely check out – the remaining performances make up the end of Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s 2016 season. Be sure to catch a performance of The Shoemaker’s Holiday before it closes on November 20th. It’ll give you a naughty, 417-year-old treat to be thankful for when you’re counting your blessings on the 24th.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one intermission.
The Shoemaker’s Holiday plays through November 20, 2016, at Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, performing at The Great Hall at St. Mary’s Community Center – 900 Roland Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or online.
Note: Pre-Show entertainment begins approximately 30 minutes prior to curtain and an entertaining, optional Talk Back with the actors follows each performance. Additionally, free, pre-show lectures on The Shoemaker’s Holiday will be presented at 7 PM each Saturday. On Saturday, November 12th, the speaker will be Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager at the American Shakespeare Center. On Saturday, November 19th, the speaker will be Tom Delise, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s Artistic Director.
Get Your Fringe On: Fifth Annual Charm City Fringe Festival Preview by Patricia Mitchell.