Sunday, April 6, 2014

Hoosier Bard's lurid 'Arden of Fevershame' feels ripped from the headlines; did Shakespeare have a hand in it?

Hamlet tells his mother, "I know not 'seems,'" but even as this fatally blunt hero says it, he is probably dissembling.

The characters in "Arden of Fevershame" know nothing but "seems." It's a play published anonymously in 1592 whose possible partial authorship by William Shakespeare puts it under consideration for the New Oxford Shakespeare, a project advancing with a research team based at IUPUI.

From the title character, a widely despised Elizabethan variant of "The Wolf of Wall Street," on down, everyone has a secret agenda. Each thinks only of himself; any expression of tenderness is manipulative. In such a milieu, it's hard to sympathize even with characters bearing justifiable grudges.

These people have about as much depth as it takes to act one way and be another — but no more. Thus, they become a little tiresome over the play's roughly two-and-a-half-hour length, though they are played pretty well by a hard-working cast.
The principals of "Arden of Fevershame" are without principles.

IUPUI-based Hoosier Bard Productions opened the show over the weekend (it will be repeated April 11 and 12) at Central Library downtown. Terri Bourus, the creative force behind Hoosier Bard and one of the new edition's general editors, directs the modern-dress production, explicitly conceived in film noir style. Gary Taylor, managing director and dramaturg, also heads the crew.

The duplicity and scheming, futile up to a point, become almost comic, making a comical interpretation of the play's two openly nasty thugs, Black Will and Shakebag, oddly appropriate, especially as deftly managed by Ben Asaykwee and Thomas Cardwell.

On Saturday, Bill Wilkison played Arden to the hilt as a man used to being in charge of his private and public lives. Arden has reason to be suspicious, because he has much to account for that a moral man would not be proud of. In portraying his agonized, fretful wife, Alice, Jaddy Ciucci thrusts the role compellingly to the shrill edge of madness. Alice's double life makes her prone to quarrel with her lover, Mosby (Scott Russell), a habit that hobbles their conspiracy against Arden.

The outcome, based on a true crime story of the day, won't be revealed here. But I can say that for much of the play, Arden is extraordinarily lucky. A surfeit of motivation to do away with him is not enough for two other characters, either — shifty servant Michael (Benjamin Schuetz) and the land-robbed Richard Greene (David Marlowe). The course of true hate never did run smooth, these anxious plotters discover.

Bourus asks the audience to guess which parts of the show likely came from Shakespeare's pen. For jealous rage that foreshadows Othello's, my first vote goes to Arden's early speech to his loyal attorney, Franklin. When Alice describes the cheated landowner Greene's murder plot to Mosby, the long-winded detail recalls a typical Shakespearean narrative speech.  Later, the aggrieved adulterer Mosby's soliloquy has hallmarks of the Bard, and his subsequent upbraiding of Alice carries the vituperative extravagance of Shakespeare. Arden's telling of a frightening dream to Franklin reminds us of the deep-seated fascination with dreams that runs throughout the canon.

Stylistic affinity with Shakespeare is evinced by similes of almost Homeric length  and characters' declarations of motive and their worried self-examination. Word play and banter, such as the villains' conversation with the ferryman here, seem Shakespearean, especially considering its frequency in dialogue between characters of different social stations in several plays.

I'm tempted to see the most flamboyant speeches in "Arden of Fevershame" as attributable to Shakespeare. His most prominent rivals — Christopher Marlowe at one end, Ben Jonson at the other — were characteristically more direct. By one scholar's count, more than 300 men wrote for the stage during Elizabeth's reign. I have no idea how many attempted anything close to Shakespeare's florid style, though John Lyly must surely hold the prize bouquet.

Frustration with Shakespeare's profligate rhetoric has annoyed commentators from Jonson, who wished his friend had "blotted a thousand" lines, through French carpers like Voltaire, down to T.S. Eliot, who preferred the candidly tendentious "Coriolanus" to the "poem unlimited" of "Hamlet."

In "Nothing Like the Sun," Anthony Burgess imagines a Shakespeare devoted to lyric and narrative poetry, but forced by his middle-class status and the grip of ambition to adapt his luxuriant imagination to the stage and base his career there. Does some basic authorial disgust with plays and players lie behind Hamlet's famous advice to the head of the troupe that visits Elsinore? Does Shakespeare show his hand in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" when he has Theseus say: "The best in this kind are but shadows, the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them"?

Metaphorical thinking is based on the surprising truths to be found in unlikeness. It's not hard to see how a writer so uniquely gifted would, in making drama, graft onto that gift an almost obsessive exploration of the human tendency to be inauthentic.

In one of her Harvard Norton lectures, Dame Helen Gardner said the one question she would want to ask the immortal Bard is why he didn't take more care with the publication of his plays. Perhaps it's because they grew out of the common soil of such blood-and-thunder entertainments as "Arden of Fevershame." That soil nurtured the glover's son from Stratford professionally, but it could well be true that, astonishingly, he always thought himself above it all.