Moved by an impulse analogous to the original instruments movement in early music, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory (BSF) is dedicated to mounting the Bard’s plays and those of his contemporaries in the style a late 16th or early 17th-century audience would have experienced. The style involves relatively declamatory, presentational acting, far removed from naturalism, featuring the frequent use of stylized, standardized gestures. House lights remain on throughout the production, lacking the targeted lighting design of modern-style productions. The actors sometimes speak directly to the audience and occasionally move from the stage onto floor level to interact with front-row patrons.
For BSF’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, a comedy of sex, love, and greed by Shakespeare contemporary Thomas Middleton, director Marshall B. Garrett made the innovative choice to use an all-female cast. Shows of this era were written for single-gender (male) casts, and BSF’s switch to all women lends a fascinating, and quite successful, dynamic to the production. Garrett comments in his program note that “letting a room of adult women loose on a play that is loaded with sexual innuendo has been incredible, and absolutely hysterical.” The result is, indeed, often extremely funny.
For a play far less familiar than those of Shakespeare, dramaturg Dani Turner offers an invaluable background in her program notes. Cheapside was a major commercial neighborhood in London, famed for its collection of goldsmiths and its general level of depravity (the program makes an analogy to the pre-Disneyfied Times Square). A virtuous girl in that corrupt urban environment, the title implies, is rather a unicorn. Turner also places the play in the context of the era’s religious strife. The play lampoons religious hypocrisy of all sorts, particularly that of the Puritans who, 15 years after the playwright’s death in 1627, would ban theatrical performances in the country.
Garrett relates that his entry to the play was through the movie Love Actually. It brought to my mind the opening of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Middleton, who wrote some bloody revenge tragedies, was clearly in the mode of tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight. He brings on an ensemble cast of liars, lovers, and clowns, the story centering on the true love of the eponymous chaste maid Moll Yellowhamer (Allie Press) for the young swain Touchwood, Junior (Jane Jongeward). Moll’s goldsmith father (Holly Gibbs) prefers to marry her off to the mercenary, philandering Sir Walter Whorehound (Katharine Vary) who, true to his name, is canoodling with Mrs. Allwit (Emily Classen), subsidizing her husband (Sian Edwards) for his wife’s services.
There are yet more sexual shenanigans afoot. The relentlessly fecund Touchwood, Senior (Kerry Brady), performs his favorite task for Lady Kix (Valerie Dowdle), given that her elderly husband (Stephanie Jo Clark) isn’t up to it. When Moll’s Latin-spewing younger brother Tim (Nell Quinn-Gibney) comes home with his tutor (Abigail Funk), seductive sparks fly between the tutor and Tim’s mother Maudlin (Elizabeth Young). In one of the show’s funniest scenes, the insecure Tim has a fraught encounter with the far more sexually aggressive Welsh Woman (Aly Whitmore).
To this tossed salad of people and situations add a sword fight, estate planning complexities, and an apparent death or two, and you have a show with which the audience must be fully engaged to avoid losing track of the goings-on. Fortunately, the cast’s energy and commitment to the production’s style keep matters on track. Gibbs, Brady, Jongeward, and Vary do notable work in conveying the masculine energies of their characters.
Costume designer Kendra Shapanus distinguishes the male from the female characters by using jeans and other pants for the former and puts a clutch of hypocritical Puritans in red hats. Given that many actors play multiple roles, she has devised a variety of coats and other items to identify each of them.
The BSF space is a repurposed church, fitted with a two-level wooden stage reminiscent of a smaller version of the Folger Theater stage in DC. The stage itself is effectively the set, and the actors use all of it – the main platform, an upstage alcove, the second-level balcony, as well as the floor area in front of the stage – as part of Garrett’s lively design of the show’s movement.
One entertaining feature of the production is the use of cast members, situated on the stage balcony, to sing present-day songs in something like a period style as pre-show and intermission music. Some of the numbers seem to have been chosen for their resonance with the play, such as “Like a Virgin” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Well, the girls in this Chaste Maid do appear to have fun, and the audience likewise.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission.
A Chaste Maid in Cheapside plays through November 18, 2018, at the St. Mary’s Great Hall, 3900 Roland Avenue, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, you may call 410-662-9455 or go online.