With its mission of bringing rarely seen classic plays to new life for contemporary audiences, Red Bull Theater is presenting a limited Off-Broadway engagement of the Elizabethan true crime drama Arden of Faversham at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. First published in 1592, and perhaps representing the earliest example of the Renaissance genre of domestic tragedy (characterized by the dramatization of recent local crimes rather than distant historical events), the darkly comic thriller of anonymous authorship (it has been attributed to Shakespeare, Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Watson, both individually and in collaboration) was inspired by the actual Valentine’s Day murder of the titular figure by his wife Alice and her lover Mosby in 1551, following multiple failed attempts by a series of inept killers for hire.
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher and Kathryn Walat and directed by Red Bull Artistic Director Jesse Berger, with fight and intimacy direction by Rick Sordelet, the production combines Elizabethan language and meter with more current noir and slapstick stylings, and a greater focus on the female characters, for a timeless look at love, infidelity, class, and money as motivations for murder, and at the serious consequences for everyone involved. It’s all brought to life by an engaging and versatile cast of ten that adeptly captures the drama and delivers the comedy through the twists and turns of this stranger-than-fiction story.
Set in the Ardens’ home in Faversham, Kent, and at an inn and in the countryside on his business trip to London, the show’s transporting artistic design likewise employs a mix of eras. The set by Christopher and Justin Swader and props by Samantha Shoffner evoke the 16th-century locales, imaginative costumes by Mika Eubanks combine Elizabethan fashion with more modern styles of the 20th century and now, while distinguishing between the positions and status of the assorted characters, and original music by Greg Pliska is decidedly modern and stirring. They’re accentuated by Pliska and Nina Field’s realistic sound effects, including gunshots and the crackling of a fire, and dramatic lighting by Reza Behjat, with spotlighting in the darkness, disorienting haze, and the orange glow of consuming flames, which contribute to the mood, mystery, and resolution of the narrative.
Berger’s compelling staging interweaves enacted scenes with segments of direct-address soliloquies, as the characters ruminate on their feelings and relationships, and consider the personal benefits of their deadly actions. Cara Ricketts stars as the duplicitous Alice, who falsely professes to love her wealthy husband but plots and pays to have him killed so she can be with her paramour and Arden’s friend Mosby, a steward and former tailor, in the belief that love transcends social class and women should be free to choose. She flirts and laughs, begs and pleads, lies, cheats, and conspires, in a penetrating portrayal that reveals the superficiality of her smile, her driving lust, and the depths of her treacherous cunning, eliciting our laughter and aversion.
Tony Roach’s Mosby is not always easy to read; he’s deceptive in his amicable interactions with Arden, sometimes equivocating with the seductive Alice, and determined to improve his inferior social standing, for which he has been belittled by their target. In the eponymous role of Arden, Thomas Jay Ryan is gullible and trusting, though aware that he’s been cuckolded, as he tells his dear and loving friend and traveling companion Franklin, embodied with signature classical mastery by the outstanding Thom Sesma. Yet he is willing to believe in his wife’s love and Mosby’s amity, with dire results that are compounded by his dismissal of the vengeful Widow Greene (a change of gender here from the original male tenant farmer Greene), played by the excellent Veronica Falcón, whose land he has usurped and for whom, as a woman, Alice feels (or feigns) sympathy. In so doing, she is able to enlist her services in the deadly deed, and the Widow, in turn, hires two murderers to execute it – the rough and bumbling ex-soldiers Big Will and Shakebag (note the similarity of their names to that of William Shakespeare), but they only make a series of botched attempts, in laugh-out-loud Vaudevillian-style characterizations and segments of well-executed physical comedy by David Ryan Smith and Haynes Thigpen.
Rounding out the fine cast and adding more touches of humor to the show are Zachary Fine as Arden’s visibly and vocally timorous manservant Michael and Joshua David Robinson as the laughably foppish painter Clarke – two suitors in love with Mosby’s sister and Alice’s maidservant Susan, both vying for her hand in marriage, and both promised it for being pawns in Arden’s killing. The role of Susan, played with emotional and psychological insight by Emma Geer, has been expanded in this new adaptation, to give more significance and greater three-dimensionality to the woman. Robinson also appears as a Ferryman and the Lord Mayor of Faversham, two minor but important roles in the progression and conclusion of the crime thriller.
As with all of Red Bull’s productions, Arden of Faversham succeeds at making a classic play accessible, entertaining, and relevant for our times, with its skillful synthesis of then and now.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, including an intermission.
Arden of Faversham plays through Saturday, April 1, 2023, at Red Bull Theater, performing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $77-112), go online. Masks are required at Monday evening and Saturday matinee performances.