London’s Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) was known for his ‘city plays’ written during and after the time of William Shakespeare. His was the time of King James I aka the ‘Jacobean’ era. In this time issues of decadence and the increasing influence of Puritanism boldly contrasted one another. For those who actually think that ribaldry and in-your-face sexual expression only began in the 1960s, catch the current Classical Actors Ensemble revival to widen your scope.
A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, penned by Middleton around 1613, is a delightfully multifaceted satire that blows the whistle on what we might call by today’s standards ‘predatory sexuality’. Yet it’s very playful in its whistle-blowing. In very brief and partial summation, much of the action revolves around an aristocrat who exploits his position for physical pleasure. Sir Walter Whorehound has an ongoing sexual liaison with a Mrs. Allwit with the grateful blessing of her obviously cuckolded husband. He couldn’t care less that she’s his ongoing ‘friend with benefits’ because of the material benefits he reaps from it as well. The Allwit family’s home and security hinges on this sexual arrangement and so both Allwits are fully at peace with that. It makes one wonder how many arrangements like this have existed in human history. It’s not something the participants could ever talk openly about unless their names were changed and they had a nonjudgemental interviewer like Dan Savage. Even today it’s taboo to talk about even the idea.
However, when Whorehound’s tastes and desires expand, numerous cogs in the social network spin into crisis mode. This means numerous characters, complex situations, and ‘licentious’ behavior zestfully portrayed by director Joseph Papke’s cast. They master the language, the story structure, and the racy situations. The show is jam-packed with juicy performances woven together through precise comic pace and timing.
Deb Murphy’s contemporary costumes and various contemporary verbal interjections actually enhance the 17th century sensibility. This is always tricky because it’s quite easy for the spirit of the original text to slip away. However, these choices actually assist in making the complicated plot line lucid without sacrificing the real Middleton. Therefore, even those unaccustomed to the archaic language can follow and enjoy.
CAE gives us a splendid mix of inventiveness, mastery of language, and a sense of how sexual power can discombobulate us. You get an idea of why the Puritans would finally close the theaters in the 1640s. The Jacobean stage, as A Chaste Maid in Cheapside puts forth, was bold in its bawdiness. And though it’s not expressed in this play, it was also bold in its portrayal of violence.
The production also benefits from a live band and singing of popular 20th century tunes. The Elizabethan and Jacobean theater scene was festive and often rowdy. Not the sedate stereotype that many still have about theatergoing. If you’ve never been to a CAE show you may be pleasantly struck by the winning combination of a relaxed atmosphere and an array of first rate actors who really and truly know the classical acting craft and how to make it accessible.
A Chaste Maid in Cheapside
in repertory with Romeo and Juliet
Through Apr. 12
Minneapolis Theatre Garage, 711 W. Franklin Av., Mpls.